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Another Kind of Gulf War

[J. F. Kelly, Jr.] 9/7/05

Nature declared war on the vulnerable residents of our nation’s Gulf coast of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and when the initial attack was over, it was clear that nature had won. Man’s fragile buildings, levees and infrastructure were no match for the wind, seas and flooding of Hurricane Katrina.

Even as we stood among the thousands of supporters assembled far away in Coronado to listen to President George Bush pay tribute to WW II veterans and reassure us that things were going well in Iraq, it was becoming obvious that things were not going at all well in America’s own beleaguered Gulf area. Questions were already being raised regarding the appropriateness of the president’s presence in Coronado while things were going to hell in New Orleans, where Americans were perishing by the hundreds and perhaps thousands even as he spoke. As it became obvious that this was not the best time for pep talks, tributes, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, the president cut short his West Coast visit and vacation and headed to the White House after first touring the devastated areas.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

The somewhat belated federal effort to cope with the disaster had a sputtering start, by most reports. Watching television images of stranded victims on rooftops and remaining sections of elevated highways pleading for help, while others waded in fetid flood water up to their hips or higher, seeking higher ground, viewers were asking why there were no early airdrops of food supplies, why no military convoys speeding to the area with relief supplies.

Initial relief efforts were hampered by violence, looting, arson and general lawlessness. Armed gangs roamed the streets, firing on rescue workers, police, helicopters and even ambulances, diverting police from lifesaving operations. The chaos revealed all too plainly how close to the surface is the violent side of human nature and how quickly it emerges when security and law enforcement is insufficient. With no places left for confining marauding hoodlums and insufficient fuel for their vehicles, police were often helpless to deal with the violence. The situation clearly called for immediate martial law and a shoot-to-kill policy in dealing with violent thugs. But where were the National Guard forces? With so many of them committed to Iraq, there were simply not enough of them and they were late in arriving.

The disaster paralyzed river commerce and Gulf port traffic with severe disruptions to the transport of oil and farm produce. To try to get essential commerce and materials moving, the president waived the restriction against using foreign flag vessels to transport gods between American ports. The archaic restriction was designed to protect American flag vessels from foreign competition. One is tempted to ask, “What American flag vessels?” Our merchant marine is a mere shadow of what it used to be.

It’s easy enough to second guess federal responses to any disaster and none of us far away in the security of our dry homes is really in a position to judge. But somehow, it seems disgraceful that people should die of hunger and thirst on rooftops in American in 2005 while we watch it all on TV. If the military has in fact, undergone a transformation into a flexible, highly mobile force able to respond rapidly to emergencies, why wasn’t the initial response to this domestic crisis faster? Is it because they are over-committed and undermanned? Of course, opinions differed regarding the quality of the initial federal response. Watching Fox news, you heard that everything possible was being done. Watching CNN and the major networks, you seemed to hear more criticism than praise, at least in the first few critical days.

In past major disasters, the determination to rebuild has often inspired and sustained survivors. But in New Orleans, too many people were still dying over too wide an area to speak much of rebuilding yet. The extent of the damage and the death toll remain unknown but surely will be staggering. People who still remained in the battered city were living in a cesspool, awash in toxic chemicals, vermin and filth that will remain even after the ground has dried. Challenges facing any attempts to rebuild will be enormous, if environmental and safety requirements are to be met. If a city that lies below sea level in the path of hurricanes is to be rebuilt properly, it must be provided with a system of dikes and levees that can withstand a category 5 storm. Can you imagine the cost involved?

Many lessons from this tragedy will be drawn in the months ahead. Although it is fair that questions be asked, now is not the time for assessing blame as some politicians and groups shamelessly have already done. Now is a time to pray for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and to send them all the help that we can spare. And it is never too early to think about ways we can better prepare for the next inevitable disaster. tOR

copyright 2005 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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