Thursday, September 01, 2005

I visited New Orleans once, fourteen years ago. Apart from my standard tourist experiences of New Orleans' "SeedyLand" theme-park-of-tawdriness atmosphere, my most vivid memory is of my departing flight from New Orleans airport. I've never in my life experienced a more chaotic flying experience. Passengers were shooed without boarding passes onto the already-late plane, where harried flight attendants looked around for an empty seat to park them in. My (assigned) seat happened to be occupied by a gentleman who smugly informed me that since his assigned seat had been taken by someone else, I'd just have to find another one. (Eventually, one of the harried flight attendants investigated, and discovered that the woman occupying the gentleman's seat was in fact on the wrong flight.) As we took off, the head flight attendant announced over the PA system that she was terribly sorry about the confusion, that never before in her career had she experienced anything remotely like this, and that she hoped we wouldn't take this experience as representative of her work, her crew or her airline. She then informed us that our flight had been randomly selected by the airline for a passenger survey, and that we would be passed around questionnaires regarding the quality of the service we had received. Although I was appalled by the whole spectacle--and indicated as much on the survey--at least some of my fellow passengers seemed to think that it wasn't all that atypical of flights leaving New Orleans.

The shock and outrage over New Orleans' post-Katrina woes reminds me of that experience--and not just because of the chaos. What's just as striking to me is the unique scrutiny to which the local, regional and national disaster response infrastructure is suddenly being subjected. Thirteen years ago, when Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida to the tune of 25 billion dollars, a quarter of a million people were left homeless, and over a million stranded without power--a quarter-million of them for over a week--as looters ran rampant and government personnel at all levels struggled to maintain order and care for the victims. But I don't remember a national outpouring of fury at the authorities' slow and imperfect response to that disaster. (In fact, compared with the police failures during the LA riots earlier that year, the response to Hurricane Andrew was a model of smooth efficiency.) Rather, the nation's attention focused on the (largely private, charitable) relief effort, as millions in donations were raised to help the victims recover.

If I had to identify a single turning point in America's standards of disaster response, I would guess that the date was September 11th, 2001. 9/11 was a unique emergency, in many ways. It occurred in wealthy lower Manhattan, amidst high-rent office buildings, in a city which had already pioneered the restoration of order and safety in urban America. It was a foreign attack–-that is, a powerful unifier of the citizenry–-rather than an impersonal act of nature. And the terrible toll it exacted on emergency response personnel–-at least some of which, we should remember, might well have been avoidable–-no doubt heavily dampened criticisms of the emergency response effort in its aftermath. The result has been the popularization of an idealized image of disaster response that has greatly heightened national expectations for the government's competence and efficiency in such situations.

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with high expectations, and if the result is that governments across America become much more prepared, rehearsed, and capable of overseeing a speedy, effective response to any foreseeable disaster, then there's every reason to rejoice. But that process is only beginning, and while I can understand the indignance that many feel at the government's haphazard response to Hurricane Katrina, I'm more puzzled by their apparent surprise.

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