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Jan. 15 2010 - 10:25 am | 3,272 views | 2 recommendations | 17 comments

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    How about that they aren’t comparable because in New Orleans an estimated 5,000 people died and in Haiti the estimates are between 50,000 – 100,000? not to mention those who will suffer from starvation, drought, and disease in the coming months.

    You’re right that the motivation for Obama giving aid is not comparable to Bush’s (lack of) response during the Katrina disaster. and it certainly doesn’t seem productive to question these efforts through the lens of political appearances… at least for as long as there are still people buried alive.

  2. collapse expand

    “The Haitian disaster cannot be traced to any specific political or bureaucratic failure.”

    Maybe not one specifical failure, but a long term one? Yes. It can be traced to the brutal political oppresion its population has been suffering for too long, with the US as the main culprit. Just to point one example of this: the extreme overpopulation Port-au-prince suffers can be traced back to the economical policies the US and the IMF imposed on the country, consisting amongst other things in lowering tariffs to rice imports, which drove thousands of local peasants broke as they couldn’t compete with the heavily subsidized production that came from the US, causing them to move from the countryside to precarious slums in the city, something that also had the effect of increasing the burden on the already grossly insufficient infrastructure. An earthquake in an overpupulated area with no money for decent infrastructure is obviously much more tragic than one in a city that at least has some of this most basic stuff sorted.

    Another paralelism between New Orleans and Haiti is that the disaster in Haiti is already been seen by the right wingers as an opportunity to push for free marker reforms, as they did with Katrina. And Obama’s 10000 troops there are seen as a medium to enforce them. See for example what the Heritage Foundation is plotting already: http://www.tinyrevolution.com/mt/mt-comments.cgi?entry_id=3195

    Haiti is not a state of the US but the US surely has a tremendous influence in how the people live there, what with central america being considered by the US itself as “our own backyard”.

  3. collapse expand

    to NOT liken haiti to new orleans is ignorant. people in haiti aren’t impoverished, don’t have a dysfunctional political system, or corruption because of WHERE they live…it’s because of who controls them and every other impoverished, developing country in the world. sure, maybe earthquakes are endemic to haiti, as hurricanes are to new orleans, but the lack of infrastructure is tied to the nation’s history of imperial rule. if we ignore these vulnerable areas where impoverished people live, what else can we expect?

  4. collapse expand

    Earthquakes are random occurrences – expected but always totally surprising. The failure of the Haitians to plan for the surprising is hardly unique, and this tragedy is a massively devastating indictment of short-term thinking.
    After congratulating ourselves for our generous and heart-warming outpouring of support (which we deserve), let’s take this opportunity to look at all the expected but surprising disasters that will occur sometime in the US’s future. Here in CA, earthquake kits skyrocket in sales after a minor temblor; after this major shock, let’s start looking at the bridges and water mains, public buildings and schools that have been neglected across the US.

  5. collapse expand

    RE:Now the Obama administration’s competence and compassion will be tested in a similar racial context

    The obama administration has no compassion…it’s a group of people out to get as much for themselves as they can, in money and power

    Obama is a millionaire…the guy could easily write a check for $100,000 to help haiti…how much has he given from his own personal funds?

  6. collapse expand

    Katrina’s aftermath was not dealt with in an efficacious manner but to blame George W. Bush for that speaks volumes of your own failure to ascertain the facts. Most of the blame for what went on in New Orleans can be laid at the doorstep of RAY NAGIN.

    It’s up to local and state governments to manage at their level, the disaster efforts and usually when it proves to be too much for their asses to handle, they stick their hand out to the federal government.

    This is WHY we have state Guard and state militias. Asking the federal government to CYA when its beyond the state’s ability shows a definite lack of leadership and organization in the state government. And everyone wonders why the states have difficulty balancing their budget.

    You’re right about one thing and that is this: comparing New Orleans with Haiti is like comparing apples and oranges. New Orleans is an American city full of American citizens, while Haiti is a broke dick foreign country without any ability to deal with its own crises. So be it. Seems though that our present POTUS is willing to help out anyone in need as long as they aren’t Americans.

    • collapse expand

      Actually, no.

      Nagin’s biggest error was failing to have a plan in place to evacuate people without transport. That was a horrible mistake that cost many people their lives. But there was very little he could have done after the storm hit. He had virtually no police force, very limited communication, no other resources.

      When a disaster on the scale of Katrina occurs, only the federal government can muster the resources to rescue people, provide shelter and food, and clean up afterwards. This is not an ideological issue, it is simply a logistical fact of life. You will find no one in government familiar with these issues or among the emergency management community who disagrees. That’s why FEMA exists, because states and localities cannot mobilize sufficient people/supplies to deal with massive disasters. So after Katrina hit, the ball was in Bush’s court, and he, DHS and FEMA dropped it.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Actually FEMA exists because America’s private sector pays for it……when is someone going to recognize Joe and Jose Private sector taxpayer?

        In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Actually, Yes. Nagin had plenty of time to put the poor on those school buses that later ended up under water. I remember the press conference he had when he was asked why he didn’t use the school buses to take the poor out of New Orleans and his response was “those buses don’t have bathrooms on them. You tell the bus companies to get out here right now.”
        Ah, great leadership in action.
        Hey, nice try though. It will help you later when you blame George Bush after Obama’s continuance of Bush’s policies fail in ajbect misery. Complete economic collapse. And it was all Bush’s fault. Which would be half right, but leaves out the fact that the big O has given more money to the banks, sent 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan. Two party system?
        More like one party system owned by Goldman Sachs.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      It took 5 days to get water to the Superdome…

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  7. collapse expand

    The AP reports:But there was still little sign of any aid in parts of the capital four days after the quake, and scattered signs that the desperate

    What’s going on here….and obama is going off to campaign for some loser sunday as people die trapped under tons of concrete


  8. collapse expand

    John: Thanks so much for posting this and making that clarification. It’s good to see that many —Amy Wilentz, others — are beginning to call out many commentators for the embedded racism and dangerous arrogance of their coverage (esp. David Brooks’s hateful column).
    While your comments are central to an understanding of the distinctions between Haiti post-earthquake and NOLA post-K, it is meaningful to note the similarities of coverage in mass media and of underlying attitudes. Also, it’s worth noting that both places have proudly defiant cultures that retain Africanisms and the memory of slave trade.

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    About Me

    I'm a journalist and author who writes about science, environment, various forms of government dysfunction, and, against my better judgment, American politics. Also: the media and the future of journalism. My work has appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Wired, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, the Guardian and the Huffington Post. In a previous life I was an investigative/explanatory reporter for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. The edge of chaos, BTW, is that narrow zone between stasis and chaos where complexity emerges and interesting things happen.

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