Disastrous Comparisons

Haiti is not New Orleans

Last week, as the story about the earthquake in Haiti became the story of the relief effort in Haiti, opinion makers and political fortune tellers everywhere couldn’t help but compare the disaster there to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the breached levees in New Orleans.

This false premise—that Haiti is the new Katrina—first appeared in a post written by Newsweek’s Howard Fineman a day after the earthquake. In the piece titled, “Why Hurricane Katrina Looms Over Obama’s Relief Efforts in Haiti,” Fineman anointed Haiti as Obama’s chance to redeem the federal government’s failure to anticipate the levee breaks and the mismanagement of the Katrina relief effort. If Obama doesn’t get Haiti right, Fineman warned, it could become his albatross—just as Katrina became an albatross for George W. Bush:

… The racial context of New Orleans is writ large in Port-au-Prince. Katrina cost George W. Bush what little standing he had among moderates in his own party in part because the shocking images of suffering in New Orleans were so racially imbalanced.

Now the Obama administration’s competence and compassion will be tested in a similar racial context—and with a much worse infrastructure. Obama and his aides understand all of this. The president was out early today with a strong statement about American efforts to deal with the aftermath of the devastating Haitian earthquake.

The whole narrative that this is Obama’s Katrina, in the sense that it’s his big chance to act presidential during a major natural disaster, is fundamentally flawed for several reasons—the main one being that the earthquake in Haiti did not take place on U.S. soil.

The Guardian’s Dan Kennedy helpfully offered a map to prove this very point and dug up more examples of journalists furthering what he calls the “ludicrous notion” that “just as George Bush failed the test of Hurricane Katrina, so must Obama pass the challenge of Haiti.” He called out Fineman at Newsweek for “prattling on as though Haiti were simply the 51st state” and noted other Katrina/Haiti conflators like Chris Good at The Atlantic, who wrote that “the symmetry between Haiti’s devastating earthquake and Hurricane Katrina is undeniable.”

Or deniable. As Kennedy writes:

To compare efforts in Haiti to the Bush administration’s bungling of Katrina is media malpractice, plain and simple.

But others continue to ignore the fact that Haiti is not a part of the United States, and that the U.S. bears it no obligation other than the honorable American tradition of Doing the Right Thing—an honorable tradition precisely because it is not an official policy, but an act of goodwill.

Economist Tyler Cowen chimed in yesterday with the declaration that Obama’s presidency will not be defined by the financial crisis or a healthcare debacle, not even by those two wars we’re fighting in the Middle East, but by a quagmire in Haiti.

The U.S. certainly has a real interest in Haiti’s recovery, but Cowen ascribes the government’s responsibility there with the level of significance that marked the failed Katrina relief effort. (h/t Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic.)

Obama now stands a higher chance of being a one-term President. Foreign aid programs are especially unpopular, especially relative to their small fiscal cost. Have you noticed how Rush Limbaugh and others are already making their rhetoric uglier than usual? It will be a test of the American populace; at what point will people start whispering that he is “favoring the other blacks”?

Just as it’s not easy to pull out of Iraq or Afghanistan, it won’t be easy to pull out of Haiti.

John McQuaid, a former reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune who famously wrote a series predicting the levee breaches and devastating floods visited on New Orleans by Katrina, takes the Haiti = Katrina comparison personally. In a post deconstructing the meme for his True/Slant blog, McQuaid wrote:

This is a dangerous comparison not only because Haiti is not New Orleans, but because New Orleans is not Haiti. Yes, Louisiana has more than its share of corruption, poverty and social dysfunction. But to liken it to Haiti is to buy into the insidious notion that has plagued New Orleans before and after Katrina: that it is a geographical, cultural and demographic outlier, and thus irrelevant — and at worst not really part of America at all.

But New Orleans residents are American citizens. They vote, work, pay taxes. And America promised them basic protection from the elements, then failed them, and us all. Katrina exposed vulnerabilities not just in levees but in institutions. America should be able to fix these problems, but (at least it seems from the spotty post-K rebuilding effort) cannot. That signals more trouble for us down the road, trouble we seem determined to ignore. Identifying New Orleans with Haiti – whose problems are, at least in the short run, truly intractable – only makes it easier for Americans to maintain that willful ignorance.

McQuaid also has a problem with comparing natural disasters to each other, in general. In a superficial sense, it is natural for reporters to compare the magnitude of natural disasters to other disaster scenes they’ve witnessed. Television reporters in particular seem to have a knee-jerk habit of comparing the scenes of their war stories out loud. This is mostly harmless, though not very helpful for the average viewer, who is trying to understand what conditions on the ground are and what 50,000 dead means (about the entire population of Flagstaff, Ariz. For some context, the official Katrina death toll was 1,836, with 705 missing. The tsunami killed about 200,000 people).

So when, on the ground in Haiti, CNN correspondent Gary Tuchman said, “Roll back the clock four and a half years ago. What déjà vu,” it is understandable that visions of bodies in the streets might evoke old memories of similar scenes witnessed in New Orleans. That is a useful personal reference for that particular reporter as he formulates questions and goes about his job. But providing this anti-context ignores that these disasters were wrought by different forces in very different places with different failures. Each one is unique and Haiti—though elements of it resemble Katrina from afar—is not Katrina and should not be treated as a test for American leadership in that way.

McQuaid writes:

On one level, all disasters are the same: People die. Cities or entire nations are laid low. Relief efforts are hasty and disorganized. But each disaster is also distinct, with its own footprint, proximate causes, long-term aggravating factors, and patterns of reaction by institutions. And Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake are fundamentally different. That many people are lumping them together shows how superficial and ignorant we collectively remain about disasters – and also why we never do an adequate job of preparing for them.

You’d think the Haiti/Katrina false equivalence might die down after a week. But now with former president George W. Bush named to the relief effort—he of the bungled “Heckuva job, Brownie” Katrina response—Katrina references have only grown more rampant.

Cynthia McKinney, the former Democratic congresswoman from Georgia, penned an op-ed over the weekend titled “Haiti: An Unwelcome Katrina Redux,” arguing that the optics are the same: “George W. Bush, massive military deployment, logistical snags and slow aid delivery are evocative of the Hurricane Katrina debacle.”

I remember the bogus reports of chaos and violence the led to the deployment of military assets, including Blackwater, in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. One Katrina survivor noted that the people needed food and shelter and the U.S. government sent men with guns. Much to my disquiet, it seems, here we go again. From the very beginning, U.S. assistance to Haiti has looked to me more like an invasion than a humanitarian relief operation.

And on Meet the Press this weekend, David Gregory asked Bush this canard of a question: “What did you learn in your government’s response to the tsunami, to the disaster response to Katrina, that this administration should bear in mind?”

It is fair to ask a guy who helmed an unsuccessful relief effort about lessons learned from his failures. And Obama has made clear that the American government and its citizens are morally obligated to help those reeling from tragedy. But the question conflates that sort of voluntary relief effort (tsunami) with the government’s legal contract to govern and protect its people in domestic disasters (Katrina). Two very different things.

Reporters would do well to remember that Katrina was marked by government inefficiency and snafus. Katrina was shocking for the very fact that it happened in the United States, the wealthiest country in the world. We saw it coming from miles away and the government-led evacuation before the storm and rescue after it should have been swift and effective. Instead, the safety net failed the Gulf Coast victims of Katrina.

But the earthquake in Haiti … happened in Haiti, where even before the quake, the government was weak, and where little things we take for granted—like ambulances in an emergency—were a rare sight. Where, though it was slowly being woven together, there was no safety net in place to begin with.

Take it from the paper of record in the city most devastated by Katrina and the failed levees. As the Times-Picayune editorial board wrote in a recent editorial urging aid to the Caribbean nation, the earthquake is “Haiti’s Katrina.”

It’s not the other way around.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.