Six Different Takes on Katrina, Rita

This week the combined brunt of two hurricanes washed up on the glossy shores of American magazines, creating a torrent of coverage, complete with counterintuitive eddies, soggy historical analysis, and off-the-cuff poetry.

The cover of U.S. News & World Report, which jumped off the newsstands with a satellite image of a sinister white swirl sitting above a blue-and-green planet, nicely summed up recent American history: “Double Whammy.”

Inside, pictures of overturned cars sit near photos of broken down minivans alongside a shot of a hellacious-looking traffic jam. What does it all mean? “Hurricane watchers —and this year, who isn’t one? — like baseball fans, have a couple of things in common,” U.S. News noted. “They’re crazy for statistics and nuts about history.”

That goes double for magazine editors.

Time’s hurricane package, for instance, throws a bevy of statistics and historical analogies at two scary questions — “Are We Making Hurricanes Worse?” and “How Many More Mike Browns Are Out There?” Inside, a nice graphic package dubbed “A Vicious Cycle” (subscription required) lays out the basic science of hurricanes and argues that, yes, things are getting worse. “In Washington, successive administrations have ignored greenhouse warnings, piling up environmental debt the way we have been piling up fiscal debt,” writes Time. “The problem is, when it comes to the atmosphere, there’s no such thing as creative accounting.”

From environmental debt, Time moves on to political debt, and goes in search of Brownies. “The Bush Administration didn’t invent cronyism,” the piece notes. “[But] Bush has gone further than most presidents to put political stalwarts in some of the most important government jobs you’ve never heard of, and to give them genuine power over the bureaucracy.”

Of course, one newsweekly’s expose is another magazine’s poetic sea chantey (subscription required). Calvin Trillin, writing in The Nation, sees in Mike Brown not a crony, but a muse.

We weren’t impressed with FEMA when we came — Too set on fitting jobs to skills precisely. It’s loyalty we needed at the top. We thought a horse show judge would do quite nicely.

‘Cause government’s the problem, lads,
Americans would all do well to shun it.
Yes, government’s the problem, lads.
At least it is when we’re the ones who run it.

Fortune magazine, on the other hand, noticed the same governmental shortcomings, and was moved, not to poetry, but to praise. In a cover story entitled, “A Meditation on Risk: Hurricane Katrina brought out the worst in Washington and the best in business,” Fortune gives a chummy pat on the back to American corporate leaders who outperformed their counterparts in the public sector.

Particular kudos are given to Home Depot. “Other big businesses would tell similar stories,” notes Fortune. “They prepared well, they responded well — and they did so because Katrina was exactly the kind of event for which well-run corporations prepare themselves.”

According to Fortune, it all boils down to risk management. “Risk overwhelms the decision-making capabilities of our elected officials, who also have incentives to focus more on today than tomorrow,” notes the magazine. “Markets and corporations may be the greatest risk processors mankind has yet devised.”

Meaning … what, exactly? Apparently, according to Fortune, business leaders excel at managing risk because they have learned to use statistics. Whereas, presumably, politicians are still more interested in articles of faith than, say, articles on standard deviation. “In his history Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, former money manager Peter Bernstein describes how until the 17th century, disaster and good fortune were attributed to the whims of the gods,” concludes Fortune. “Then, thanks to the work of a few pioneering scholars, ‘fate’ became statistics and probabilities.”

Elsewhere, at The New Yorker, David Remnick focuses on history. In a piece about “How presidents and citizens react to disaster,” Remnick takes us back to 1965, when Hurricane Betsy slammed into New Orleans and President Lyndon Johnson was faced with a Katrina-like crisis. Remnick notes that (unlike President Bush) Johnson quickly cleared out his schedule, hopped on a plane to Louisiana, and toured the disaster scene in person. “In the Ninth Ward, Johnson visited the George Washington Elementary School, on St. Claude Avenue, which was being used as a shelter,” writes Remnick. “Johnson entered the crowded shelter in near-total darkness; there were only a couple of flashlights to lead the way.”

“This is your president!” Johnson announced. “I’m here to help you!”

But what about the current president? Who will help him? Enter — William Kristol, who is also full of historical advice, albeit with a different presidential model in mind.

“Since Inauguration Day, the administration has had its troubles,” writes Kristol in the Weekly Standard. “Iraq, despite the extraordinary January 30 elections, remains unstable and insecure. Elsewhere in the war on terror, we have pursued fruitless negotiations with Iran; we have trumpeted as a success a meaningless, Clintonian deal with North Korea; and we have continued to fail to rebuild our military and our intelligence capabilities so they are commensurate to the tasks we face. At home, the administration devoted six months to a misbegotten effort to reform Social Security.”

“Oh, well,” writes Kristol. “All of this is water over the levee, so to speak. The good news is that Bush is poised to rebound by getting back to basics, and getting back to the core, winning agenda.

“Ronald Reagan used to say that the right policy is often simple — though not easy to carry out,” Kristol concludes. “Efforts to win the war, cut taxes and spending, and appoint constitutionalist judges will of course encounter real-world difficulties and political obstacles. But back to basics is the path to political health and successful governance.”

So, on second thought, go ahead and ignore all of those stats and history.

Felix Gillette

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.