Three Winners and Three Losers in the Katrina and Rita Aftermath

Here’s hoping that our run of major hurricanes is over — and here’s an opportunity to examine which people, institutions and concepts won or lost credibility this month.

One big loser is New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who jumped to erroneous conclusions and cast blame like confetti. But he wasn’t alone among local demagogues, who did Huey Long proud. Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, embellished a widely publicized story of a nursing home mother who purportedly begged her son for four days to rescue her from rising waters. Reports of official pilfering of emergency aid bring to life FBI agent Lou Riegel’s description of Louisiana public corruption as "epidemic, endemic and entrenched."

A second big loser: national media that served as megaphones for hysteria and propaganda. Journalists circulated rumors of hundreds of gang members killing people at the Superdome and "30 or 40 bodies" stored in a Convention Center freezer. The reality was different: Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan said authorities found only four murders in the entire city in Katrina’s aftermath, making it a typical week in a city that anticipates over 200 homicides per year.

Reports of police in shelter shootouts or racing toward midnight muzzle flashes, with snipers firing at doctors and soldiers from downtown high-rises, delayed volunteers and rescue workers. The sensational reports were also demeaning toward the overwhelmingly African-American part of the population that remained in New Orleans and received branding as savages.

The third loser: the federal bureaucracy. If anyone expected Washington to move quickly and effectively, capital-G Government certainly proved itself not to be God. Investigators are still probing FEMA’s role, but President Bush initially showed that he is not as good as Bill Clinton in serving as the nation’s First Emoter. He then tried to counter criticism by promising a spending spree that could out-Clinton his predecessor and transfer big bucks to the well-connected.

Now, a winner: the U.S. military. During September, nearly 65,000 active-duty military personnel helped out in saving lives and offering help, with best results often obtained by entrepreneurial officers who saw immediate problems and decided to act. Some wonder if the armed forces are suffering mission creep, as during the Clinton years, but there’s a big difference between peacemaking projects that stretch on for months and years, and emergency help intensively proffered over a few days that makes use of troops still available to be deployed elsewhere the following week.

A second winner: faith-based groups. I’ve written in previous weeks about what they’ve accomplished, but here’s a new wrinkle: The feds announced that groups which operated emergency shelters, food distribution centers or medical facilities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama can now be reimbursed for their out-of-pocket emergency expenses, such as purchasing goods for distribution to evacuees.

Most groups don’t want government funds because they are working out of love for God (and also want to avoid political entanglements and preserve their volunteer donor base), but it’s good that religious groups have the same choice that secular groups possess. Volunteers will not receive any pay, but here’s an opportunity for government to provide the resources that compassionate citizens need so as to contribute their time in the most useful way.

A third winner: the importance of individual preparedness. During the Rita evacuation, many coastal residents headed inland without food, water or extra gas, thinking they could buy what they needed on the road. They were wrong. Everyone should have a "grab-and-go" backpack with water bottles, medicines, cash or traveler’s checks, and other necessities, along with a three-day supply of food.

Maps, planned-in-advance escape routes and destinations, and an extra 5 gallons of gas can also come in handy. Those in hurricane, tornado and earthquake zones have the most obvious need, but the next terrorist attack could be anywhere.