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Friday, September 23, 2005

Give us a break....

There is no doubt that the folks in New Orleans and environs lived through a true disaster earlier this month. Like the floods of 1927 that devastated the Mississippi River basin, and the famous Galveston hurricane of 1900 (now known as "Issac's storm") that literally destroyed that thriving port, the post-Katrina flooding of New Orleans was a true catastrophic disaster. And tonight's flooding of the 9th Ward of New Orleans as a result of Rita is an extension of that tragedy.

That said, what is taking place at the moment as Hurricane Rita approaches Texas is a disaster of a different sort -- it is nothing short of a tragic
political storm where lives are being lost and put at risk unnecessarily as a result of a panic perpetrated for the sake of repairing the damaged reputation and image of the Bush Administration. The media is having a ball -- it is a disaster movie scenario, and the entire episode would be laughable were it not for the loss of lives and economic damage being done for the sake of impression management and media hype.

Don't get me wrong -- Rita looks like a terrible storm, and it should no doubt have been treated as a dangerous threat. But the evacuation of millions? Give me a break -- this is not New Orleans, where the danger and potential damage was of a different nature given the condition of the levees and the city's location below sea level. Surely coastal areas needed to be evacuated, and perhaps other areas with historically high levels of damage due to such storms. But someone pushed the panic button and turned this into a disaster movie.

I have been in my share of hurricanes as a kid, and most recently while visiting my mother in Florida several years ago. The childhood storms stand out for me. I recall that when I was growing up in New York, hurricanes were pretty common (and exciting) events. I looked up the most infamous of those storms (the ones that have their names 'retired'), and sure enough, in 1954 and 1955 there were several pretty nasty ones hitting land from North Carolina to New England -- and even up to Canada. Today we rarely hear of tropical storms pounding into that region -- when hurricanes get to the New England area in recent years, they are usually the weakened remnants of storms coming from the south. But in the mid 1950s they were more direct hits from the southeast, often making landfall somewhere in the northeast. (See the list of major storms of the 1950s and after here.) These storms were killers, and they often did considerable economic damage. But while I recall pictures of shore areas being boarded up and tied down for the storms, I don't recall mass evacuations of cities. And why we would revert to that now is beyond me.

I think this episode unfolding now with Rita will in fact turn out to be a disaster, but of the political rather than natural sort -- for when the winds die down and the flood water in the street recede, people will come to realize that it was all hyped up out of proportion, and as a result there will further undermining of the public's attitude toward government.

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