After Katrina, another putrid deluge
Some of the commentary almost seems to be rubbing its hands in ‘we-told-you-so’ glee.
The sea of effluent running through the streets of New Orleans this week has been accompanied by some equally putrid propaganda from those who try to seize on any disaster as proof of the rotten state of humanity - and of its American branch in particular.
Those who insist that Hurricane Katrina was caused by man-made global warming rushed on to the scene almost faster than the flood waters. Sir David King, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, said that ‘it is easy to conclude that the increased intensity of hurricanes is associated with global warming’. Others were blunter. ‘The hurricane that struck Louisiana yesterday was nicknamed Katrina by the National Weather Service’, opined one writer in the Boston Globe. ‘It’s real name is global warming.’ (1)
Even if this argument were as ‘easy’ and straightforward as they suggest, there would still be something ugly and parasitic about these interventions, leeching off a natural disaster to score political points. But of course the case is far less open-and-shut. Some leading hurricane scientists have sharply criticised the rush to blame man-made global warming, pointing out that there is nothing unique about a storm of Katrina’s strength, that the historical data is inadequate to draw any such conclusions, and that what records there are show hurricanes tend to come in cycles regardless of anything humanity might do (2).
The ‘it’s man-made global warming’ argument is not driven by scientific data, but by political prejudice - not only about the allegedly destructive character of human development in general, but by hatred of Bush’s America as the supposed symbol of all that is wrong with the world. I mean, they were asking for it, weren’t they?
One Green German government minister was quick to claim that, ‘The American president has closed his eyes to the economic and human damage that natural catastrophes such as Katrina - in other words, disasters caused by a lack of climate protection measures - can visit on his country’ (3). If only that fool Bush had signed the Kyoto Treaty, the message seemed to be, it could have turned back the tide. The British newsreader Jon Snow, bicycling conscience of the liberal intelligentsia, went further in his daily email trailing Channel 4 news. ‘How ironic’, it said on Tuesday, ‘that the world’s number one polluter is now reaping the “rewards” that so many have warned would flow….’. It seems that some who would mock the religious right or Islamic fundamentalists for claiming Katrina as God’s vengeance on sinful New Orleans are happy to indulge the equally misanthropic superstitious notion that it is nature’s revenge on greedy, fat Americans. How ironic, as a smug git in a cycle helmet might say.
Some of the commentary on New Orleans almost seems to be rubbing its hands in ‘we-told-you-so’ glee at the terrible events afflicting Americans, in contrast to the universal outpouring of compassion for the Asian victims of December’s tsunami. We used to complain that the media was far less sympathetic to victims of disasters in the third world than in the West. Here, however, it seems that things have gone into reverse. The impoverished black Americans caught up in Katrina have attracted sympathetic coverage, treated almost as proxy third world victims of America. Yet even then, many media outlets have tended to headline reports (not always substantiated) of anarchy, looting, rape and murder, looking for horror stories amid the suffering as if no human situation could ever be bad enough for them.
In another sense, some reports from New Orleans and Louisiana have appeared to be reading from embellished versions of the script they used during the tsunami. Then, many commentators said it was ‘humbling’ to see how our pretentious human society could still be devastated by Mother Nature. Now, there has been much talk of the even more humbling effect of seeing rich and powerful America brought to its knees by ‘the wrath’ of Hurricane Katrina.
On spiked we argued that, while the tsunami was certainly horrifying, it should not be humbling. On the contrary, while natural disasters could not be avoided, their destructive impact could be limited by further economic and social development - the same development that many now want to blame for causing hurricanes. And we suggested that the developed nations of the West would be far better equipped to cope than the impoverished coastal villages and islands of the tsunami area (see After the tsunami: horrifying, but not ‘humbling’, by Mick Hume).
How does that square with the stories of death and devastation, failed planning and inadequate emergency services now coming out of America? Perfectly well, as it happens. The impact of Katrina shows the need for more investment in human and urban development, even in the Western heartlands. It also, incidentally, points to the dangers of over-using the ‘precautionary principle’, and the idiocy of demanding that life should somehow be rendered risk-free.
New Orleans is nobody’s idea of a developed modern city. Effectively sitting on a swamp in a bowl below sea level, with a ‘quaint character’ beloved by tourists that is largely dependent on fragile wooden buildings, and districts that are close to shanty-town conditions, it was always going to be vulnerable to a large-scale hurricane. Yet, as one American writer points out, ‘This week’s cruellest irony is that New Orleans survived something like the Big One [Hurricane Katrina] only to succumb to shoddy engineering. The city was soused the day after the storm, when levee collapses dumped 20 feet of water into the city. It met its demise by an act of man, not an act of God.’ (4) Better investment in developing the city’s flood defences would have been a far better defence than signing any treaty on cutting emissions. (And by the way, contrary to what some seem to suggest, such under-investment in important infrastructure projects did not start with President Bush and the expensive folly of his Iraq war.)
Warned by the authorities to leave the New Orleans area before Hurricane Katrina arrived, a million people reportedly evacuated - a remarkable exodus that would have been impossible in the tsunami region even if they could have seen the disaster coming. However high the death toll climbs, it seems certain it could have been far higher.
Attention has focused on the fact that many of those left behind in the flooded city were the poor, the elderly and the sick. There was, however, another reason why some ignored the call to evacuate, or left it too late. They had heard the official hurricane forecasters cry wolf once too often. At a time when the authorities would rather apply the precautionary principle than take a chance of being caught out, there have been several similar ‘get out’ warnings in the American south at the sign of an approaching hurricane. Many have evacuated their homes before, only to find that the predicted devastation never arrived. ‘I worry that we had a little hurricane fatigue’, says the governor of Mississippi. ‘People boarded up for [last September’s Hurricane] Ivan, evacuated and nothing happened. Then they boarded up for [last month’s Hurricane] Dennis, evacuated and nothing happened. I think until very, very late a lot of people thought “Ah, I’m not going to do that again”.’ (5)
Yet a theme underlying much of the criticism of the Bush administration is that it should have been even more precautionary in relation to the possibility of such disasters, planning for and warning about every possible eventuality. There certainly seems to have been the usual quota of cock-ups and incompetence in the preparations and emergency response to the hurricane. But it surely should not come as a shock to anybody to discover that the poor are always the most exposed to such dangers, and that the machinery of state does not always act in the best interests of the citizenry. There are many things for which the Bush administration should be held to account. However, too much of the criticism over its handling of the latest disaster seems to be saying not just ‘you should have stopped the water’ but ‘you should have stopped the world so that we could get off’.
No matter how many precautions we take, it is neither possible nor desirable entirely to eliminate risk from life even in the richest nation on Earth. That New Orleans has stood and thrived for so long as ‘an inevitable city on an impossible site’ is testimony to the strength of human resilience and determination to get on with life come what may. That spirit will be needed again now as America sets about rebuilding and repairing the damage. The cause will not be helped by those who seem determined to wash away our defences in a deluge of misanthropic doom-mongering.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
spiked-issue: After Katrina
(1) Katrina’s real name, Boston Globe, 30 August 2005
(2) See Storm turns focus to global warming, Los Angeles Times, 30 August 2005 ; ‘Extreme weather? It’s the norm’, by Brendan O’Neill
(3) German environmental chief blames US climate policy for Katrina, Boston Globe, 2 September 2005
(4) ‘After the flood’, Adam B Kushner, New Republic, 1 September 2005
(5) Some faced Katrina with ‘hurricane fatigue’, Los Angeles Times, 31 August 2005