Political scientist Immanuel Wallerstein has just published his analysis of the federal government's response to the Katrina disaster. In it, he writes:
"The entire world has been following with stupefaction the incredible performance of the U.S. federal government's response to the physical and human disaster of the hurricane Katrina. All the television networks of the U.S. and of many other countries plus all the major newspapers have been following the story in detail. The general reaction has been to ask how could the government of the richest and most powerful country in the world have reacted to this disaster as poorly as, or even much less well than, governments of poor Third World countries? The simple answer is a combination of incompetence and decline. And the results of this disaster will be a further diminution of respect for the president within the United States and a deepened skepticism in other countries about the United States' capacity to put action behind vacuous rhetoric."
Wallerstein is not alone in his claims that Katrina is a sort of existential crisis for the Bush administration and perhaps for the U.S. as a whole. Godfey Hodgson, a Brit and a long-time observer of U.S. politics, wrote:
"It is not just the levees of New Orleans that are weak. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, George Bush’s predicament reveals serious breaches in the way the American government works – weaknesses that result from the domination of sectarian conservative politics in the country’s administration and culture."
And then there is this from Richard Haass, who served in State Department earlier in the Bush administration:
The global impact goes beyond impressions. A priority of this administration's foreign policy is to promote democracy around the world. But the attractiveness of the American model, and the ability of the United States to be an effective advocate for more democratic, capitalist societies, which had already been weakened by the disarray in Iraq, is now weaker still as a result of the disarray at home. It will be more difficult to make the case for free markets and more open societies if the results of such reforms come to be associated with the disorder seen in New Orleans.
I agree that the federal (and state and local) response to Katrina was worse than bungled and that Bush himself deserves to take responsibility for this. Moreover, this tragedy had its greatest impact on the poorest and least powerful elements of society, namely poor blacks. Nonetheless, I think it is a stretch to say that Katrina indicates something is profoundly rotten at the core of the U.S.
Compare the Katrina tragedy to the heatwave that struck Western Europe in the summer of 2003. We still don't know the death toll from Katrina, but most indications are that the early prediction of 10,000 plus deaths were wildly off the mark and the actual toll will be less than half of that. In contrast, the 2003 heatwave led to the deaths of 35,000 Europeans. In France there were nearly 15,000 dead and in Paris alone, 1854 people perished. Thus, looking only at deaths, the heatwaves were a much great disaster for Europe than Katrina is likely to be for the U.S.
And like the Bush administration, the French government was criticized for its laggard response to the calamity--including the fact that the prime minister and health minister were away on vacation when the disaster struck. According to the Economist, the health minister was criticized because (shades of President Bush strumming his guitar in Crawford):
His first reaction had been a television interview showing him, in a T-shirt in the garden of his holiday home in the Var, arguing, unworried, that all was under control.
Nor, like Katrina, was this disaster unforseen. One Paris doctor said at the time:
Last summer the situation was catastrophic and this year it is worse; we were not at all prepared. The hospital system is failing.
Finally, most of those that died were from the most vulnerable segments of European society, the elderly, particularly those who were poor and lived alone. This is despite the fact that for several generations, most European nations have constructed social safety nets to provide for the care and well-being of their citizens, especially the elderly.
What's the upshot of all of this? The lesson of Katrina and the European heatwave is that natural disasters can have a devastating impact on even the most advanced and wealthy nations, and that this impact has little or nothing to do with the governing structure, ruling party, or political culture of those nations. It is no more accurate to claim that the heatwave deaths in France are the result of unworkable welfare state or the indifference of morally lax society, than it is to claim that the Katrina victims are the result of conservative social policy, racism, or free market economics.