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Katrina: Disaster Notes

September 17, 2005

For a peculiar but worthwhile journalistic, well-referenced book on history and politics of disasters, see Ecology of Fear by Mike Davis, 1998. This book excels in outlining the racial, class, and other politics behind recent U.S. disasters and response -- which is seldom covered honestly in U.S. mainstream news. Note: Part of the book discusses fictional portrayals of Los Angeles disasters.

On race, this writer remembers a controversy from the 1960s, when a major relief organization gave new clothing to whites and used clothing to blacks; when challenged, it said its mission was to restore people to their previous standard of living before the disaster. It did change its policy.

Today, despite talk about wanting people back, it is likely that the New Orleans poor will be dispersed or moved somewhere else, and the city will be reconstituted without them -- which could quickly change one of the poorest major U.S. cities to statistically one of the richest, mainly by death and transportation. All cities want rich people and high prices, and New Orleans has the geographic importance to get them.

The central issue, for the nation and the world, is what is the future of more and more poor and middle-class people in a high-tech global economy that needs fewer and fewer workers, or can more profitably outsource their work to India or China. (While many rich people are equally unneeded by the economy, they are OK for now since they can buy what they require.)

Re-thinking is needed on designing social systems that work in disasters -- for both government programs and everyday actions of citizens. For example, recently I talked with an employee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who said the EPA had teams ready to go to help clean up environmental problems after Katrina, but they never got the official phone call, so they were still sitting idle. Maybe agencies should plan differently -- to use overall coordination if it is available, but otherwise take initiative and use their best judgment in following a plan (it should be the same plan everyone else has -- not like what happened after Katrina, where some agencies' plans had never been seen by other agencies) -- instead of doing nothing except waiting for a call that will not come.

Now we are hearing of people getting no food or other aid as the money in their pockets runs out, while officials prevent them from returning to their homes in New Orleans to get assets and papers there. What should people do outside the disaster area -- find ways to send food or money to people they know, expect to be asked, or not wait to be asked? Work through church groups -- if they can connect with their members when everyone in a congregation has been evacuated, sometimes a thousand miles or more away, often without knowing where they were going until they were on the plane? Organize politically to make sure that people can get emergency help even if they were not evacuated by a government bus or plane, and therefore may not have papers proving that they are evacuees, but have only the money and supplies they carried with them for what they expected to be at most a few days? Time will tell how much the new "evacuee status" will help.

We don't know what to suggest, except that people across the country need to ask such questions and make plans for now and for the future. Government should provide coordination in disaster, with a plan that could work and resources as needed. But there must be backup arrangements for doing the best one can when government fails to do its job. Individuals have been extraordinarily generous in this disaster, with Americans giving more to hurricane relief so far than after the tsunami and the September 11, 2001 attacks put together. The issue is how good will can be most effective.

Fundraising: arithmetic can help with perspective. For example, local television recently covered the success of a group that raised $1,000 for hurricane relief through a raffle -- a commendable contribution. Also at that time, Congress appropriated over $50 billion for hurricane relief and rebuilding. A little arithmetic shows that the U.S. would have to conduct a million similar raffles this week, another million next week, and million more new raffles every single week for just under a year, to match the Congressional appropriation -- suggesting that many fundraising events, while perhaps good at involving people, are not efficient at producing real results toward their official goal. (The historically very generous contributions to the Red Cross and other charitable organizations for Katrina add up to more than $500 million so far, equivalent to over 500,000 similar raffles, but only a little more than 1% of this single Congressional appropriation for Katrina expenses -- or equal to the money cost of about half a week's war in Iraq.)

On the opposite extreme from that raffle, occasionally small groups of highly committed people make important changes that can affect the flow of billions of dollars or otherwise have major impact -- while involving only a handful of people, with little opportunity for others to join. If a way could be found to involve many people in projects that efficiently use their energy to achieve worthwhile goals, imagine what could be done toward more sensible public priorities, greater prosperity for everyone, and a more livable world.

Misleading "official" statistics: Early news reports after Katrina hit said that two people had died, giving an entirely false impression of the scale of the disaster. People expect early figures to be low, but not by a thousand times. This writer was fooled into thinking that the disaster was less severe than it was, and probably many others were fooled as well. Later, "official" death tolls in the low hundreds were widely reported in a kind of parallel reality, when it was clear that many more had died.

The widespread repetition of worse-than-useless official figures -- just because they are safe for reporters to quote, even when obviously wrong -- created a false national first impression of what had happened, and may have contributed to federal officials' difficulty in understanding the seriousness of the disaster, in the crucial early hours and days. This critical error may have stemmed from the simple fact that for a death to be recorded as official, various paperwork and other processes must be done. Official death statistics can take months or years to work their way through the system in normal conditions; here the process may have been speeded, but not all rescue workers will have filed their reports during a chaotic emergency. And with whole neighborhoods still under water, especially the poorest areas where many people had no means to evacuate, more bodies will surely be found.

For future disasters, this statistics problem might be eased if media organizations, foundations, financial corporations, interested individuals and/or others would create instant-response teams of experts, whose job would be to produce immediate estimates and statements as events occurred -- based on all available information from all sources, and on historical experience. These would include indications of uncertainty -- and include minority reports if necessary. The incentive for accuracy would be the experts' reputations, since it would soon be clear to everyone how well they had done. Their time-stamped statements could be widely quoted and reported, in addition to or instead of official figures that clearly had no relationship to reality -- providing a far more accurate basis for public first impression, political will, and response. When major disasters were not happening, teams could be improving their methods, or practicing on less important events.

ISSN # 1052-4207

Copyright 2005 by John S. James. Permission granted for noncommercial reproduction, provided that our address and phone number are included if more than short quotations are used.

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This article was provided by AIDS Treatment News. It is a part of the publication AIDS Treatment News.