The sign in front of a Katrina-blasted Baptist church about 10 miles north of Pascagoula, Miss., optimistically proclaimed that "God is good all the time."
But along the Gulf Coast, where the only commodities in full supply are death and despair, faith certainly is being tested -- not so much in God as in our leaders here on Earth. For in the wake of our government's response to Hurricane Katrina, Americans now must ask if we're safer or more secure than we were before 9/11.
The evidence throws back a scary answer: Maybe not.
Katrina wasn't a surprise. Weather and disaster gurus have long warned that a hurricane would do precisely what Katrina did to New Orleans. The clearest alarm rang in 2001, months before 9/11, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency told Congress and the president that three massive disasters might hit American cities: a terrorist attack on New York City, an earthquake in San Francisco, and a Category 4 or 5 storm swamping New Orleans.
Now, two of those disasters have come to pass. And astoundingly, we were less prepared for this one than we were for the first.
There was plenty of blame to go around. New Orleans' evacuation plan didn't adequately account for thousands of residents who couldn't (or wouldn't) bullet out of town before the storm hit. Disaster agencies in Louisiana and Mississippi were quickly overwhelmed by Katrina and unable to muster any kind of counteroffensive on their own.
But the harshest criticism was aimed at FEMA, whose lack of urgency, followed by paralysis, became more obvious as the week wore on. State and local leaders, as well as officials, volunteers and ordinary citizens in states and cities as distant as Chicago, are seething with frustration as they recount bureaucratic foot-dragging, missed opportunities to deliver aid and, in many cases, a baffling failure to act at all.
Among the disappointed were members of the Georgia-3 Disaster Medical Assistance Team, whom the feds shuttled around four states for five days without giving them an opportunity to treat the people they'd volunteered to help.
Four-hundred miles northeast of the disaster area, such complaints should concern us. Like other Americans, we've watched nervously as the federal government lurched toward a supposedly improved homeland security apparatus.
Now, Atlantans have plenty of reason for angst. While our geography makes a cataclysmic hurricane unlikely, the nearby -- and ever more populated -- Georgia coast is plenty vulnerable. Meanwhile, Atlanta itself may prove a tempting target for terrorists. Aside from being a population center, we have the world's busiest airport, the world's marquee news network, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Roy Barnes, who was Georgia's governor during the 9/11 attacks, says terrorism was his "greatest fear" while in office. Now, however, with an entire brigade of Georgia National Guard members in Iraq, he says he'd worry more about a major natural disaster.
"We just don't have the National Guard to deal with it," Barnes told CL last week. "You need people to keep order, cut trees, hold water and all that stuff. A terrorist attack that we are most likely to get in Atlanta would be smaller. It wouldn't be an airplane flying into a building. It would probably be a very specific disruption at the airport that may not be large, but would bring the whole airport to a stop."
Nature's strike against New Orleans was utterly predictable, in a way that a handful of hijackers plowing planes into specific buildings one random morning couldn't have been.
We knew where, how, and, to some extent, when the hurricane would hit. A huge storm would step up from the Gulf and thrust a counterclockwise surge through Lake Pontchartrain, north of the city. That powerful right hook would punch through New Orleans' inadequate levees, and the city would fill, like a tub, with chemical- and sewage-infested water.
Thousands would die, amid billions of dollars in property damage. The shipping and oil industries would suffer grievous wounds. New Orleans would be brought to her knees, perhaps never to rise again.
Despite those projections, the administration was woefully late in even comprehending the scale of the crisis, much less responding to it. In a speech in San Diego on the Tuesday after Katrina hit, President Bush devoted barely 5 percent of the text to the catastrophe enveloping New Orleans and the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama.
He later called the disaster a "temporary disruption that's being addressed." His Homeland Security chief, Michael Chertoff, beamed on Wednesday, "We are extremely pleased with the response of every element of the federal government."
At the same time, TV was beginning to show bodies floating in the streets, drowned children pulled from attics of flooded homes, murder and looting, thousands of citizens crying in distress, whole communities having vanished -- and local officials screaming, Where is the federal government?
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