Katrina is a huge and historic story. The human cost, the financial cost, the rendering uninhabitable of a great and fabled American city—all of it amazing. A quick look at the good, the bad, and the let’s-shoot-them-now.
- The governors. Political leadership in times of crisis is a delicate thing. You have to be frank about the fix you’re in without being demoralizing. You have to seem confident without seeming out of touch with reality. You have to be human without indulging all your very human emotions. Rudy Giuliani set the modern standard on 9/11, and in a way that is not remarked upon. All his public statements were brilliantly specific. He told you exactly what resources were on their way to do what and where and why; he told you the No. 4 subway had been diverted west and then south until 11 a.m. Saturday; he told exactly which blocks were closed off and for how long; he told you New York would come back and then he told you why and how. His leadership was a masterpiece of specificity. That he had the facts at his command left people feeling: Thank God, someone’s in charge, I can take care of me while he takes care of the city. That’s what people want in a time of crisis.
Mississippi’s Gov. Haley Barbour came closest to the Giuliani model. We are friendly acquaintances; I knew him years ago when he was a political operative in Washington. I’m frankly surprised he’s turned into a leader, but he has. From the beginning of the hurricane drama Mr. Barbour came close to Mr. Giuliani’s specificity. In news conferences he laid out with breadth and precision the facts of the Mississippi coastal devastation. He had to keep telling the press and the public that there would be more dead than they understood, a delicate thing to have to do. He did it with candor and transparency but no defeat. He had command of what facts were known. His face was shocked and sad, but he never looked beaten; he referred on “Larry King Live” to the rebuilding of the coast as if it were a foregone conclusion but one that will take massive work. He seemed straight, unillusioned, human. Watch Mr. Barbour. If he continues like this, he’s going to become a significant national figure.
Louisiana’s Gov. Kathleen Blanco was shakier, but she can recover. She wore her heart on her face, not always helpful in a leader in crisis. In her early news conferences she looked concussed. Her presentation seemed scattered. This was human—as governor she was one of the first to understand how bad the storm’s impact was—but politics is a tough room. Early on she was clearly trying to make people understand how bad the situation is. She had to. But the overall impression she left was not informational and hope-giving but shook-up and dispiriting. She can turn this around. The waters may have peaked; a comeback will at some point commence. She showed anguish and now she can show fortitude, like a fighter made hungry by pain. Go, Kathleen, your state needs you. People will take their cues from you. Butch up, punch back, wade in. Literally. Be there.
- President Bush. The political subtext: Does he understand that what has happened in our gulf is as important as what is happening in the other gulf? Does he know in his gut that the existence of looting, chaos and disease in a great American city, or cities, is a terrible blow that may have deep implications? It was bad luck that on the day it became clear a bad storm was a catastrophe he was giving a major Iraq speech, and bad planning that he arrived back at the White House cradling a yippy puppy. But his Rose Garden statement was solid. Yes, it was a laundry list, but the kind that that gives an impression of comprehensive government action. Having the cabinet there was good. His concern was obvious. But more was needed in terms of sending a U.S. military presence into New Orleans.
- The media. Excellent as always in time of crisis. We all love to hate them, but when a story like this comes along you’re glad Anderson Cooper decided to stand there up to his butt in snakes and alligators to tell you about the city that’s become a swamp. You’re glad the anchors are so crisp and contained, you’re glad Brian Williams is in the Superdome telling you what’s going on. They’re rich and celebrated, our media stars, but when stories like this come they earn it. Not sufficiently celebrated: television cameramen, who do much of what Anderson Cooper does only while walking backwards and with their eye in a viewfinder. They’re good.
- Rescuers. Nothing gives you hope in your fellow man like those pictures of the rescuers dropping from helicopters in breathtaking rooftop rescues. Remember what Dick Cheney said when flight 93 went down in a field in Pennyslvania? He said he had a feeling an act of significant bravery had occurred on that plane. We’re going to hear about some significant acts of bravery during Katrina, too.
- Bloggers. In February I wrote that bloggers will help get America through a national crisis. They just did. Nothing has the immediacy and believability of local reports by citizen journalists living through a local story. Terry Teachout performed a public service linking to Katrina blogs; Glenn Reynolds offered links to relief organizations. The Times Picayune’s live-blogging has been solid. Local bloggers were great until they started losing electric power and couldn’t send anymore. Mr. Teachout told me at the end they were blogging by BlackBerry. As power comes back the greatest blogging should begin—what it was like, what the recovery is like, what is happening on the streets. Thanks in advance.
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Last week I said that this is the wrong time in history to move forward with the wholesale closings and consolidation of military bases throughout the U.S. Terrorism was on my mind, but the incredible tragedy on the Gulf Coast is giving us a new gulf war, one in which we must help an entire region get back on its feet after being leveled by an ancient foe, the hurricane, and what is happening there right now in New Orleans and Mississippi seems tragically illustrative of the fact that local military presence can be crucial in times of grave national emergency.
The importance of local presence is not only practical but also psychological and symbolic. As I write I am watching CNN, which is showing a truck carrying half a dozen soldiers speeding into downtown New Orleans. Good. Thugs are looting and shooting there. Local police are overwhelmed and unable to restore order, and there was Tuesday’s report that some law enforcement officers had actually joined in the pillaging. At a time like this the presence of U.S. troops can make all the difference.
I hope Congress and the president are watching, and I hope what they see will have some impact on their decision about whether go forward with or rethink the base closings. It is not wrong to want to save money, rid a highly bureaucratized system of redundancies, and modernize. But timing is everything. We are at an odd time. This is no time for a wholesale shift or a radical retrenchment. They should leave the military base system where it is. They should look to New Orleans for proof of how important a local military presence can prove to be, even in dramas caused not by man but nature.
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As for the tragic piggism that is taking place on the streets of New Orleans, it is not unbelievable but it is unforgivable, and I hope the looters are shot. A hurricane cannot rob a great city of its spirit, but a vicious citizenry can. A bad time with Mother Nature can leave you digging out for a long time, but a bad turn in human behavior frays and tears all the ties that truly bind human beings—trust, confidence, mutual regard, belief in the essential goodness of one’s fellow citizens.
There seems to be some confusion in terms of terminology on TV. People with no food and water who are walking into supermarkets and taking food and water off the shelves are not criminal, they are sane. They are not looters, they are people who are attempting to survive; they are taking the basics of survival off shelves in stores where there isn’t even anyone at the cash register.
Looters are not looking to survive; they’re looking to take advantage of the weakness of others. They are predators. They’re taking not what they need but what they want. They are breaking into stores in New Orleans and elsewhere and stealing flat screen TVs and jewelry, guns and CD players. They are breaking into homes and taking what those who have fled trustingly left behind. In Biloxi, Miss., looters went from shop to shop. “People are just casually walking in and filling up garbage bags and walking off like they’re Santa Claus,” the owner of a Super 8 Motel told the London Times. On CNN, producer Kim Siegel reported in the middle of the afternoon from Canal Street in New Orleans that looters were taking “everything they can.”
If this part of the story grows—if cities on the gulf come to seem like some combination of Dodge and the Barbarian invasion—it’s going to be bad for our country. One of the things that keeps us together, and that lets this great lumbering nation move forward each day, is the sense that we will be decent and brave in times of crisis, that the fabric holds, that under duress it is American heroism and altruism that take hold and not base instincts born of irresponsibility, immaturity and greed.
We had a bad time in the 1960s, and in the New York blackout in the ’70s, and in the Los Angeles riots in the ’90s. But the whole story of our last national crisis, 9/11, was courage—among the passersby, among the firemen, among those who walked down their stairs slowly to help a less able colleague, among those who fought their way past the flames in the Pentagon to get people out. And it gave us quite a sense of who we are as a people. It gave us a lot of renewed pride.
If New Orleans damages that sense, it’s going to be painful to face. It’s going to be damaging to the national spirit. More damaging even than a hurricane, even than the worst in decades.
I wonder if the cruel and stupid young people who are doing the looting know the power they have to damage their country. I wonder, if they knew, if they’d stop it.