As a New Orleans resident, I've followed the political fallout from Katrina very closely. I've talked with other evacuees, read dozens of blogs and watched countless hours of news.
I’ve just about seen and heard it all, but the only thing that I've learned is that no one seems to understand what really is going on.
Everyone, from what I gather, wants to put the blame on one person or entity, either in an attempt to put it on someone that they don't like, or to shift it from someone that they do. Everyone's looking for that one easy person or entity that can shoulder all of the blame and be the scapegoat for all of the misery. Unfortunately, they're all dead wrong, even as their facts are dead right.
Some want to blame President Bush. After all, he's the one who loaded up FEMA with campaign contributors and friends that had no disaster experience. He's the one who didn't take off from his vacation until three days after the hurricane hit and he's the one who took funds away from the project to strengthen New Orleans' levees in order to fund the Iraq war.
Some want to blame the Louisiana state government. Kathleen Blanco, the governor of Louisiana, did wait nearly a week to ask for Military help, didn't effectively mobilize the Louisiana National Guard until after everything went sour and didn't get troops into the city until several days after the flooding started.
Finally, others still want to blame local politicians. It was Mayor Ray Nagin, after all, who waited until the last possible second to order the mandatory evacuation and offered substandard aid to the poor who needed help evacuating. Also, it was local corruption that siphoned off much of the funds intended to upgrade and repair the levees protecting the city.
But the truth is, despite all of the sound bytes, that this wasn't a failure of one single entity. Everyone, from the President all the way down to the city council, failed to do their job. What happened in New Orleans wasn't a mistake by one person or entity, but a massive failure across local, state and federal lines.
Rather than trying to cast blame or turn this into some kind of political advantage, we need to be addressing the fundamental questions that this raises. Namely, what do we, as citizens of the United States, expect our government to do for us and why is it that our government failed to do it. These are difficult questions that cut straight to the very core of our system of government and the structure of it. They aren't easy and there are no simple answers.
Because one thing that we all seem to agree on, right left, libertarian, authoritarian and centrist alike, is that the government has a role to protect citizens from one another, foreign nations and natural disasters. It's shameful that our response to the tsunami in Indonesia was quicker than the response to a disaster on our own soil. Though masters of saving the world and the veritable police force of the known universe, we falter when an easily predicted disaster happens on our own shores.
No, this disaster wasn't preventable, but it was predictable. The residents of New Orleans were well aware of the possibility and volumes have been written on it in various government disaster planning guides. No one can say that they didn't see it coming and much could have been done years ago to stop some of the worst elements of it.
Even if one argues that there was no means of shoring up the levees or working to actually stop the flood, there's no doubt that there was several days warning that the hurricane was going to hit and that much of the infrastructure needed to recover from such a disaster could have been in place beforehand. After all, we shouldn't have to wait days for food, soldiers and transportation to get to the area. Not when nature gave 72 hours advance notice to start with.
The fact that our government, on every level, could drop the ball so thoroughly shouldn't send us seeking out a scapegoat, but rather, it should shake our faith in the system we pledge allegiance to. When a government can't protect its own people, it is impotent. There is no nice way to say it.
My sincerest hope is that, out of this tragedy, a new conversation will arise about what we expect from our government and how we can best achieve it. I seriously hope that major restructuring, not just the bureaucratic kind, is on the way.
Clearly things need to change and it's painfully obvious that the people responsible for what happened aren't the ones to make the changes. Only we, the citizens can do that.
It's time to demand more from our government and put its focus back where it belongs. We've spent too long protecting the world so now we can't protect our own citizens. It's a hard lesson to learn, but it's one now painted in the misery following Katrina.