Response a Disgrace — Not a Tragedy

We will be admonished not to make politics out of tragedy, but we have a responsibility to figure out what went wrong with the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Today, far too often, tragedy is employed as an incantation to ward off responsibility. (Try Googling the phrase, “The events of today were tragic, but …” to get a taste of what I mean.)

Tragedy is an idea we get from the Greeks — human life as a grand, hopeless struggle against our own flaws and unloving celestial forces that conspire to bring us down. Tragedy is a spectacle, provoking a catharsis composed, in Aristotle’s phrase, of “pity and terror” in the spectator — but not outrage. To call something tragic is to take a stance of elegiac distance. The world view that produced the idea of tragedy also produced great thinkers and artists, but it did not produce prophets.

Judaism assumes, even in utter catastrophe, that life has meaning, which we find in the ways we’re obliged to relate with God and one another. Our traditions teach us to experience our neighbor’s anguish, not as catharsis but as a summons to action.

What’s happened in New Orleans, along with the continued devastation of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, is not tragic drama. Those events are the combined results of natural conditions and human decisions.

Meteorologists tell us that the Gulf of Mexico is heating up. The evaporation of that heated water fuels hurricanes. The present administration has not only refused to sign the Kyoto Treaty but has dismissed the magnitude of global warming as a matter of policy, to the point of pressuring scientists at government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, to weaken reports that warn about global warming and its effects.

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, concluded in 2001 that a catastrophic hurricane in New Orleans was “among the three likeliest … disasters facing this country.” (Not to freak anybody out, but the other two were terrorist attacks and a San Francisco earthquake.)

In 2003, the administration relieved restrictions on developments that destroy wetlands that had helped to protect the Gulf Coast. Experts in Louisiana have been warning for years that New Orleans’ levees could not withstand a Category 5 storm. Nevertheless, last year, the Bush administration cut the Army Corps of Engineers’ request for funds to enhance the city’s protection.

FEMA’s own budget was slashed, and the organization reduced to a section of the Department of Homeland Security. But FEMA’s annexation to an agency entrusted with our country’s safety did not result in a prompt response to the Katrina disaster by our security forces. National Guard units, along with the Army, were no better able to respond quickly to Katrina than our military might be able to respond to an armed attack elsewhere — all are stretched to breaking by the Iraq War.

For five days, people stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center and in small communities along the Gulf Coast had nothing to eat or drink. People who had survived the storm died of dehydration. Evacuees walked for miles without help, carrying the old, the young and sick.

Michael Brown, the head of FEMA, has said in more than one interview that he was caught unprepared and “surprised” at the number of people who either “chose” to remain in New Orleans or did not have the means to leave. Anyone charged with urgent attention to the situation of poor people in times of national peril might have been less astonished and better prepared.

That there are so many desperately poor people in such a wealthy nation as ours, and that such a disproportionate share of them are people of color, should not be dismissed as tragic either. Nor is it an act of God.

Nor is it an accident that those who have lost their homes and livelihoods will face new bankruptcy legislation that makes it harder to start over. President Bush called Katrina, “one of the worst national disasters in our nation’s history.”

A disaster it was. But the anguish of New Orleans, of all the drowned, starved and dispossessed, is not a tragedy. It’s a shanda — a disgrace.

Robin Podolsky is a Los Angeles writer.