September 9, 2005

National City Spotlight:

Questions After Katrina

By Ted Godshalk

From the images and stories I have seen and heard, September 1st should be declared a National Day of Remembrance. Hurricane Katrina, with its vast vacuum system pulling the ocean water up into the sky, has hit New Orleans with an unimaginable force. Then came the flood. A sudden breach in a concrete levee allowed wave after wave to sweep in, and now the low-lying city floats in a toxic brew.

Our Cajun brothers and sisters have been badly hurt by all of this. In a global sense, this natural disaster easily compares with the tsunami in Asia. In New Orleans, even with an early warning and the evacuation of one million people, we still see scenes of squalor and suffering at the Superdome and the Convention Center. One thing that caused so many to be stranded in the city was the lack of automobiles among the poor. While some buses were mobilized for the evacuation, thousands of people did not get out. In addition, the fear of losing everything may have actually convinced some to try to ride out the storm. Add to this the cruel timing of the hurricane. It hit just before payday and cash was tight for many on August 29. For some, leaving town was simply not an option.

There used to be a thing called the “safety net” for the poor in our nation. It is usually referred to in the context of economic aid like food stamps or Medicare coverage for health care needs, but the safety net is more than that. Food, water, shelter, and medical care are basic needs before and after a natural disaster. In Louisiana, the safety net was torn to shreds while the U.S. government was not seen actively managing the situation for days. The personal welfare of the victims of Katrina was neglected by the government, which has cut programs and increased corporate subsidies.

Is this what homeland security is supposed to look like? Since 9/11, homeland security has been promoted as a kind of well-planned system for dealing with critical crises. The people left behind in New Orleans do not believe for a moment that their security was ever in the plan. Here in National City, this worries me.

Can this happen here? You bet. Nature’s fist is always poised in a velvet glove, ready to strike at any moment. Are we prepared? We may have thought a little bit about it, but we cannot know for sure if everything is in place until the “big one” hits. We have had warning signs that all may not be well. A couple of months ago, there was a tsunami alert was broadcast over the television—in one language. Many people I spoke to the next day in National City had not heard the warning at all that previous night. There are plans out there I’m sure, but you know, I am an active civic participant and I don’t know enough about them to feel secure. Do you?

Where do you go in an emergency? Who is there to help and who will help the helpers when they are stretched thin or overwhelmed? What do those without cars do when an evacuation is ordered? Bigger questions must be addressed as well. In National City, I think it would be prudent to ask if the Navy will help out in a massive natural disaster? In Louisiana in the first critical days of the crisis, military bases remained closed to civilians, secure in a terrorist threat context but thoroughly unreceptive to the helpless evacuees.

It is in vogue for politicians today to claim to have improvements in the public’s safety as their “highest” priority. Proving this priority by demonstrating a preparedness plan for our community that we can count on is now essential. A mutual aid plan for our community must involve more public outreach. We must know that the failures and mistakes from Katrina will be learned from. Furthermore, as the human wave now spreads out from New Orleans, the shelters and service organizations in California must start planning for the needs of more people, especially in the winter months to come. To help with efforts at the sites of so much destruction along the Gulf Coast, you may donate to the U.S. Fund for UNICEF at www.unicefusa.org. Lastly, stay prepared. Let’s look out for others and maybe they will look out for us.

Ted Godshalk can be reached at paradisecreek@mac.com

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