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.
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.