Why Haiti is not New Orleans
When disaster strikes, it’s invariably followed by a rush of memes and metaphors about What It All Means. In the aftermath of the disaster in Haiti, one of the ideas circulating is particularly facile and wrong-headed: likening the Haitian quake and Hurricane Katrina.
There is a superficial comparison to be made, of course: impoverished city, its residents overwhelmingly of African descent, chronically neglected by richer, whiter centers of power. So reporters who covered both disasters are freely comparing the two: “Several times in the continuing cable news coverage, [Anderson] Cooper and other reporters drew comparisons to the scenes they witnessed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The CNN correspondent Gary Tuchman said: ‘Roll back the clock four and a half years ago. What déjà vu.’”
Others are using the two disasters to analyze Barack Obama’s presidential leadership and his political fortunes. Will he screw it up, like Bush did Katrina? What calculations are going on right now in the White House to avert Bush’s post-K, post “heckuva job” fate? A skeptical Dan Kennedy expertly parses some of these reactions. Of them, Howard Fineman offered the purest distillation of this point of view:
Elected in part out of revulsion at the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, Obama now finds himself confronting an even more devastating and complex humanitarian crisis.
And, adding irony upon irony, the racial context of New Orleans is writ large in Port-au-Prince. Katrina cost George W. Bush what little standing he had among moderates in his own party in part because the shocking images of suffering in New Orleans were so racially imbalanced.
Now the Obama administration’s competence and compassion will be tested in a similar racial context—and with a much worse infrastructure. Obama and his aides understand all of this.
This doesn’t make sense even on Fineman’s own narrow political terms. While it’s clearly in Obama’s interest to respond vigorously, the political stakes here are obviously very low because Haiti is a foreign country and Obama is not ultimately responsible for its well-being. (Fineman’s subtext isn’t that voters will punish Obama for screwing up, but that that the media might. In other words, it’s a manufactured issue.)
On one level, all disasters are the same: People die. Cities or entire nations are laid low. Relief efforts are hasty and disorganized. But each disaster is also distinct, with its own footprint, proximate causes, long-term aggravating factors, and patterns of reaction by institutions. And Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake are fundamentally different. That many people are lumping them together shows how superficial and ignorant we collectively remain about disasters – and also why we never do an adequate job of preparing for them.
The Katrina disaster was the result of a long series of government snafus. Start with a badly-conceived and sloppily-maintained federal hurricane levee system. This made the New Orleans area potentially fatally vulnerable to a big hurricane, something politicians and bureaucrats at all levels knew – and regarded as acceptable. On top of this, the Army Corps of Engineers gave a thumbs-up to floodwall designs containing engineering errors. Those mistakes led to the walls’ collapse during the storm and the flooding of most of the city.
You know the rest: when the city flooded, the nation’s emergency management system – newly and incompetently reorganized and commanded post-9/11 – broke down, creating a secondary and equally avoidable humanitarian disaster. And when it counted, George W. Bush and his top aides demonstrated they were unaware of and unable to engage these problems.
The Haitian disaster cannot be traced to any specific political or bureaucratic failure. Unlike hurricanes, earthquakes are very hard to predict in the short run. You won’t find the sophisticated building codes and construction techniques that can limit some of the damage of severe quakes in a place like Haiti. Haiti is always a ripe candidate for humanitarian disaster because of its endemic conditions - poverty, dysfunctional political system, corruption.
This is a dangerous comparison not only because Haiti is not New Orleans, but because New Orleans is not Haiti. Yes, Louisiana has more than its share of corruption, poverty and social dysfunction. But to liken it to Haiti is to buy into the insidious notion that has plagued New Orleans before and after Katrina: that it is a geographical, cultural and demographic outlier, and thus irrelevant — and at worst not really part of America at all.
But New Orleans residents are American citizens. They vote, work, pay taxes. And America promised them basic protection from the elements, then failed them, and us all. Katrina exposed vulnerabilities not just in levees but in institutions. America should be able to fix these problems, but (at least it seems from the spotty post-K rebuilding effort) cannot. That signals more trouble for us down the road, trouble we seem determined to ignore. Identifying New Orleans with Haiti – whose problems are, at least in the short run, truly intractable – only makes it easier for Americans to maintain that willful ignorance.