Sun, Aug 27, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Hurricane showed the ugly side of America


Hurricane Katrina was not only a tragedy for hundreds of thousands of people in the US on the Gulf Coast -- it was also one of the worst disgraces in US President George W Bush's administration.

The natural disaster unveiled the ugly side of the US: poverty, racism and violence were thrown under the microscope for the world to see.

The disaster exposed failures in the nation's disaster response capability, the indecisiveness of the president and the miserable crisis management skills in Washington.

Nor was Katrina an honorable chapter in US and European media history. Many outlets sensationalized and blew the situation out of all proportion, with countless horror stories of alleged mass rapes and murders in refugee camps, snipers gone wild and looting on the streets of New Orleans.

high crime rate

There was clearly violence in the days after Katrina, but New Orleans had one of the highest crime rates in the US before the storm hit.

But through all the tales of hardship, misery and struggle, one of the most lasting images was that of the aloof, unconnected president of the US. As pictures were beamed around the world of the plight of tens of thousands of people, from the helpless elderly to children and the infirm wading through water or stranded on rooftops, there was also the picture of Bush purveying the disaster-struck region out of the window of Air Force One.

His unforgettable comment was: "I don't think anyone could have predicted the levees would be breached."

Yet even New Orleans travel guides contained information about the city's fear that its weak damns would collapse under the weight of a "storm of the century."

After Katrina, many in the US saw Bush as an emperor with no clothes -- his image as a tough decision-maker who had taken his country to war was decidedly tarnished. Americans were shocked and Bush's popularity plummeted, riding the downward slide of Katrina, war in Iraq and Republican party scandals. They were the darkest months of his presidency.

"If this is what happens when we have advance warning, we shudder to imagine the consequences when we do not," members of Bush's Republican Party said in a report released in mid February.

"Katrina was a national failure, an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare," it said.


The report also found that "earlier presidential involvement could have speeded the response" because Bush alone could have cut through all bureaucratic resistance.

An immediate scapegoat presented itself in the form of Michael Brown -- the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- who lost his job soon afterwards.

Brown still insists the government did not react adequately to his many warnings.

The pictures of suffering from the predominantly black population of New Orleans showed a side of the US rarely portrayed in Hollywood movies. More than 37 million people in the US live under the official poverty line -- defined as US$22,509 for a family of four. No ethnic group has a higher percentage of people in the category than blacks.

And so in the extreme situation that marked New Orleans, another side of the US came to light: racism. White refugees who broke into supermarkets to fetch water and food were not considered criminals, but merely resourceful people desperate to survive.

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