Hurricane Katrina, once considered the disaster of the decade, is the subject of a new exhibition at the Newseum, a high tech museum devoted to journalism in Washington, D.C., timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of our national failure in New Orleans.
First you walk down a hall lined with the front pages of newspapers that chronicle the progress of Katrina from a natural disaster when it hit New Orleans with unprecedented force on Monday, August 29, 2005, to a few days later, when, as the world watched, Katrina became a man-made catastrophe, with the levees collapsed, the city underwater and the vaunted United States government unable to come to the aid of its citizens. The September 3 headlines range from “Unbelievable” to “Is This America?” 1800 Americans died, and the entire city evacuated – more than a million U.S. citizens rendered homeless.
The rest of the exhibit focuses on how journalists covered the story, without electricity and often at great risk. Suffice it to say that the blogosphere will never substitute for professional reporters when it comes to these kinds of events.
It is an infuriating and emotional visit. Boxes of Kleenex are strategically placed through the exhibit, and you’ll need them.
Katrina invites comparison to 9/11, when the failure of U.S. intelligence, military planners and airline security personnel combined to render our nation powerless against a throng of determined fanatics. Congressional investigators said, “If 9/11 was a failure of imagination then Katrina was a failure of initiative.”
A court later held the federal Army Corps of Engineers responsible for the collapse of the levees and thus the destruction of New Orleans once Katrina hit. You can read the congressional report chronicling the government’s failure to prepare for and then manage the disaster here.
Conservatives seized on Katrina as more proof that big government is bad, although it’s hard to fathom how “market forces” could fill the shoes of a national government.
After a viciously hot summer throughout the nation, you wonder whether Katrina was the result of yet another failure of political imagination, at the US and global level: the failure to acknowledge and reverse global warming while there was still time.
Meanwhile, Katrina has been superseded by an even more devastating man-made disaster: the economic collapse in 2008. Like Katrina or 9/11, the initial catastrophe was not government’s doing, it was Wall Street greed and speculation. But, like 9/11 and Katrina, government bears responsibility for allowing it to happen. As I noted in the introduction to our report on the crash, Wall Street paid off Congress to let “market forces” run amok, and when the bubble inevitably burst, Washington quickly rescued the financiers.
But like the residents of New Orleans, many Americans are struggling to stay afloat and some have gone under. In terms of lives ruined, families sundered, pensions lost, people made homeless or left without health care, who knows whether the toll from this disaster will exceed that of Katrina or, for that matter, 9/11.