Week in Review: Hurricane Katrina

Linda Wertheimer reviews the week's news with senior news analyst Daniel Schorr. There's really only one topic, carved many ways: the impact and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): They don't have a clue what's going on down here. They flew down here one time two days after the doggone event was over with TV cameras, AP reporters, all kind of (censored), excuse my French, everybody in America, but I am pissed.

WERTHEIMER: That was New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin speaking on radio station WWL on Thursday. By Friday, President Bush was saying something was wrong.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: A lot of people working hard to help those who've been affected, and I want to thank the people for their efforts. The results are not acceptable.

WERTHEIMER: This morning, President Bush announced that he was sending an additional 7,000 active-duty troops to assist in relief efforts in Louisiana. NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr joins us. Welcome back, Dan.

DAN SCHORR reporting:

Yeah, but look what I came back to.

WERTHEIMER: Yes. Usually we try to give a review of all the week's news in this segment, but the devastation from Hurricane Katrina has been so huge we thought we'd stick to that single subject today, and we need to look at both the human and the governmental aspects, because it's become truly a crisis at both levels. Let's start with the human side. Lives were disrupted; many died in Mississippi and Alabama, as well as in New Orleans. But it was in New Orleans where the most people have been affected. What struck you as you heard and read about it?

SCHORR: Well, of course, you are struck by the immensity of it and the tragedy of it, but there was one additional thing that struck me and that is a disaster is not an equal-opportunity thing. When they called for evacuation from New Orleans, those with cars drove out. Those without cars got stuck there. And those without cars were predominantly black and poor people. That struck me.

WERTHEIMER: And then, of course, there were all those people who remained in the city because they were too old to get out, too helpless to get out.

SCHORR: That's right.

WERTHEIMER: There's--all that sort of thing was going on, as well. But then, Dan, there was the shooting and the looting.

SCHORR: The shooting and the looting. Well, the looting came first and it's what happens, I suppose, when you have people who are desperate; at the same time, a lack of uniformed authority or anything to deter them. Although I think it was interesting, if I was told correctly, that a great deal of the looting was not great items like television sets, but more like food and water and diapers for the children. People were simply acting in desperation. And when there's no uniformed authority, as there now since then has come to pass--without uniformed authority, what's to stop people?

WERTHEIMER: Let's move on to the governmental aspect of this tragedy. And start with what happened before the storm hit. Why didn't more people evacuate? Should state and local governments have done more to make sure people were getting out of their homes along the coast or in New Orleans?

SCHORR: Local governments, state governments might have done more, but in the end it is the federal government which bears the ultimate responsibility for the citizens of this country. I think that's been accepted even by President Bush, who said the federal response was unacceptable. That was his federal government that he was talking about. As to what state and local governments could do, well, they did what they could, and the end of it was not enough.

WERTHEIMER: And in the aftermath, local officials have been uniformly critical of the federal government for not moving fast enough to get people out, not moving fast enough to get supplies in. How justified do you think that is? Are we just looking at a storm that is so massive that no one could have done anything about it, or is the criticism correct?

SCHORR: Well, something could have been done about it. They were aware that they were living with danger behind these levees, and interesting thing was that the FEMA, the federal emergency organization, said that there were three possible disasters to look for. One was a terrorist attack on New York, an earthquake in San Francisco, and a third one would be a hurricane that would strike New Orleans, so that it was not out of the question that this would happen.

WERTHEIMER: What about reports that there were budget cuts, that FEMA had its budget cut, that there were cuts in the budgets to repair the levees, all of that kind of thing?

SCHORR: Well, that's right. The city and the state frequently came up with plans for what to do about the infrastructure there. I mean, they were aware they're living below sea level; they depend on the levees and there's work that has to be done. The Corps of Engineers would come up with projects; the city would come up with projects, the congressional delegations of Louisiana would go and ask for this amount of money to do something about the infrastructure, including these levees. And during the past several years, each time the amount of money they asked would be cut quite drastically by an administration which was very much involved in cutting taxes and paying for an war in Iraq.

WERTHEIMER: Speaking of the war in Iraq, there's been some talk that that war has drained resources from the National Guard, and that's why we haven't seen that enormous National Guard presence that we generally expect to see in a disaster of this sort. Do you think that's true?

SCHORR: Well, the federal government said it's not true, that there are enough National Guard left to do whatever they have to do, and now they are beginning to arrive in New Orleans. However, what also seems to be true is that they're very short of equipment because a great deal of equipment has been shipped to Iraq.

WERTHEIMER: Dan, what do you think is going to be the long-term effects of this disaster--the political effects, other effects, the economic effect?

SCHORR: Well, the economic effect is really quite clear; I mean, there's a question--we already have had a shortage of gasoline and now there are going to be bigger and bigger shortages, and they're bound to have some economic effect.

WERTHEIMER: What about political effect? Do you think that...

SCHORR: Well...

WERTHEIMER: ...any of these politicians who've been in charge in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or here in Washington...

SCHORR: The political effect is really hard to figure. For example, here was Dennis Hastert, speaker of the House, who went out and said there's some question as to whether New Orleans should come back in the first place; maybe the city shouldn't be rebuilt. Well, a lot of people descended on him. He said he didn't really mean it quite that way. But it is clear that this city will become a political issue. Who gains, who loses, I do not know. But I think that, as after 9/11 all of politics began to revolve around 9/11, I think now we're going to have another great disaster which is going to affect politics. Mind you, I'm not making any predictions as to who gains and who loses, because I simply don't know, but that there will be an effect, yes.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Daniel Schorr. Dan, thanks.

SCHORR: Oh, my pleasure.

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