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August 22, 2010

Five Years After Katrina - What Have We Learned?

We were all awe-struck five years ago watching the coverage of the rescue efforts in the Gulf following hurricane Katrina. But did we learn anything from that tragedy?
Remember: our annual hurricane season is well underway and storm activity peaks around this time each year. And we ready for “the big one”?

Consider the following:

1) Transportation Means Survival: The difference between those who lived and died in New Orleans was based on access to transportation. When told to evacuate, those with cars did. Those without couldn’t and were stranded. The lack of public transportation along the Gulf Coast left the “disadvantaged” as just that… dis-advantaged, and maybe dead.

How would those living along the Connecticut coast be evacuated if a category four hurricane were threatening us? Join the crawl on I-95? Take Metro-North? Or hunker down at a local mall. How many of our towns have adequate shelter or emergency supplies?

Is Amtrak ready, along with Metro-North, to deploy its fleet to evacuate the hundreds of thousands threatened by a hurricane? Doubtful.

2) Our Classless Society Isn’t: The victims of Katrina weren’t characterized as much by race as by economic class. Being able to afford to live away from the flood plain and have access to private transportation both cost money. This isn’t about race: you don’t have to be Black to be poor.

But after Katrina, then-President Bush’s mother, Barbara, was touring the Katrina refugee camps in Houston. She commented that, given the squalor of their former New Orleans homes, these victims of Katrina were actually better off than before. Then she added “it’s kind of scary that they might all want to stay in Texas.”

Where would Connecticut’s refugees flee after an evacuation? And how long would they be gone pending recovery and rebuilding? Gold Coasters perhaps could drive their SUV’s up to familiar ski country in New England. But where would the Hispanic, Haitian and Black populations of Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport go… and would they also be made to feel like so many dust bowl Oakies when they arrived at refugee camps?

3) Our Government Is Incompetent: Katrina and 9/11 showed us that our government can’t do a damn thing to protect its citizens. One might excuse a surprise terrorist attack, but a long anticipated, well-scenarioed hurricane? Not a chance.

At the time of Katrina, 75 percent of FEMA’s budget was being spent on anti-terrorism efforts, even though acts of nature present the real danger to most Americans. Gobbled up into the Homeland Security Agency, FEMA had lost all clout, competence and most of its budget. “Brownie” may have been doing a “helluva job”, but would his successor do any better five years on?

Ask any old-timer about the Hurricane of 1938 which devastated New England that September. It still ranks as the worst natural disaster to ever hit our state. True, the human toll was compounded because we had no notice of the coming storm. But even with sufficient time to evacuate, a storm of that size would devastate this state, especially our most expensive homes built along the coast.

Santayana said: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Have we really learned the lessons of Katrina?

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