Saturday, September 03, 2005

If American can't handle a natural disaster, how will it cope with a man made one?

In all the news reports covering hurricane katrina, the same question arises again and again. How could the richest country in the world allow such a disaster to happen?

The hurricane could not have been prevented, but in the run up to and in the aftermath following the disaster, the city's poor and needy residents were left behind. Lots of questions are being asked...

1. Why was there no investment in stronger flood defences?
2. Why was no provision made to get those without transport out of the city?
3. Why did help take so long to arrive?
4. How could a city in such a highly developed country descend into such lawlessness?

I don't live in America but have visited several times, and what has struck me the most is what an individualistic country America is. Americans don't expect the Government to do things for them, they take the initiative and do it themselves. That's what the American dream is all about. Whether it's going to University or requiring healthcare, Americans prefer to pay less tax and get through life under their own steam.

The problem is the (not so small) minority who fall through the safety net: the elderly and infirm who cannot afford healthcare and the poor who cannot afford transport or to insure their homes. In a society where it's each and every person for himself, the result of this disaster has been anarchy. Without any central government co-ordination, no one knew how to respond. Overlapping relief agencies got in each other's way, and the national guard stayed in their barracks whilst looters, rapists and murderers took over the city.

There may be a lot of soul searching (as there was after the 1992 LA riots), but once everything has returned to normal, will anything change? If anything, Americans will have even less faith in their Government being able to solve their problems, and will be less willing to subsidise the poor people of a state that most of them don't live in.

The one group that will take encouragement from recent events are the Islamists, but if they think this makes America an easy target, they're mistaken. The events of 9/11 were seen as an attack on all Americans, and it led to the rallying of Americans round their president and a co-ordinated disaster response. Unfortunately, hurricane katrina was an attack on a remote and often unseen part of american society and the result was indifference.