Today is the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting land. While the storm is most closely associated with causing substantial destruction to New Orleans, the storm also did enormous damage in Alabama, Mississippi, parts of northern Florida as well as in the Bahamas and Cuba before striking the U.S. mainland. More than 1,800 people were killed as a result of Katrina while thousands of others were displaced.
Competence proved to be in short supply. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco were slow to request federal aid. When it was requested, the federal government was not effective in providing it. President Bush memorably told FEMA Director Michael Brown he was doing a “heckuva job”, but it soon became apparent that he was overwhelmed by the task. Although to be fair, he did say beforehand that Hurricane Katrina was “the big one” and expressed concerns about the structural integrity of the New Orleans Superdome. Nevertheless, Brown was soon relieved of his duties. Hurricane Katrina arguably did as much damage to the Bush presidency as the War in Iraq and even the financial crisis which followed three years later.
At the time, I was working in the insurance industry. Like everyone else, we were operating by the seats of our pants. No one had experienced an event like this before and we had to make it up as we went along. Because of this single event the number of claims we handled doubled. For the better part of a year, I was working a 60 hour week. Of course, I am not claiming any suffering here. I did not lose any loved ones nor lose any property. But expectations and scrutiny were very high and I, along with my colleagues, had to meet and exceed them.
During Katrina, our company brought dozens of examiners from the South who were experienced in all matter of disasters. Frankly, if FEMA had these people on board I cannot help but think the recovery would have been a lot less chaotic. Many of these people resided in the states affected by Katrina. People from the South are, of course, regularly maligned by liberal elites as backwards racists with limited intellectual capacity. These caricatures are, of course, nonsense. They were friendly, outgoing and open minded. It was also during this period that I became a fan of Cajun cuisine.
The damage from Hurricane Katrina was lasting. Indeed, the recovery will be ongoing for many years to come. But some of the damage was anger and resentment fuelled by false claims of racism. All manner of racial demagoguery was engaged whether it was Kanye West claiming President Bush didn’t care about black people or Spike Lee giving legitimacy to the claim that the feds blew up levees in order to kill New Orleans’ black residents. But perhaps worst of all was then Senator Barack Obama in a 2007 speech claiming that Congress did not waive a provision of the Stafford Act requiring communities to contribute 10% of funding to disaster relief. Well, not only did Congress waive the Stafford Act for New Orleans, Obama was one of only 14 Senators who voted against waiving this provision. As Thomas Sowell wrote at the time, “When he gave that demagogic speech, in a feigned accent and style, it was world class chutzpah and a rhetorical triumph. He truly deserves the title Phony in Chief.”
While disasters can bring out the worst in people, they can also bring out the best. This was the case when Texas Governor Rick Perry appealed to municipalities to absorb people displaced by Hurricane Katrina and many communities did just that with Houston being the most notable. A lot of liberals like to give Texas a bad rap, but when trouble hit the people of The Lone Star state were there to help and there is something to be said for that.
Even if we have learned a few things from Katrina and are in a better position to handle natural disasters, just when we think we have a handle on things Mother Nature is there to remind us just how little control we have in the grand scheme of things. Whether disasters are natural, man-made or both they test our character. Some of us rise to the occasion while others do not. Unfortunately, no amount of preparation can guarantee that it will be the former as opposed to the latter.