Looking for Leadership in a Storm

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Sitting on the sidelines during a disaster is tough to do, even for a seasoned journalist. Hurricane Katrina provides many difficult choices for Americans who want to do something — anything — to assist victims of the storms. But the most valuable commodity may be leadership.


This has been a painful week for all Americans, this week of storms and floods and destruction. I'm sure that in every household in this country someone has gone to bed this week only to become totally awake with the words of displaced people echoing in their heads. I know there are people sitting down to dinner with family and friends who suddenly feel the beginnings of a bellyache, feeling irrationally guilty about a good dinner, not to mention taking out the trash, turning on the tap, flushing the toilet.

Sending money to the Red Cross is important, and everyone ought to do it, but somehow this terrible situation has made us feel that we have to get off the sidelines and onto the field because somebody has to do it. I say that as a professional sidelines stander. For all the years that I've covered politics and a few floods and earthquakes, I've been very clear that my job was to show up and then tell our listeners what I'd seen and heard. It's an article of faith with me that I serve a useful purpose on the sidelines, and I've never been tempted to wade into a demonstration, grab a banner and start marching. I have never wanted to grab a politician by the back of his neck and try to shake some sense into him or her. Well, almost never. But four long days watching suffering people waiting has tested my resolve.

It seems to be a question of leadership. People who should be leading the effort to help seem disorganized and ill-informed, urging dying people to be patient, denying realities that our own reporters have seen, that we have all seen. Local leaders are reduced to pleading on the national news for the personnel and vehicles and supplies needed to provide basic necessities for victims. And help must come from the outside. Local fire and police departments are filled, after all, with people whose own grandmothers are marooned on the second floor of a flooded house, whose own family homes are reduced to splinters, whose own families need their help. Outside troops and trucks and boats, buses, planes and helicopters are needed and, thankfully, are finally beginning to arrive.

The frustration that millions of Americans feel with this slow response is clear. You see it when the trickle of refugees from the flooded areas of the battered coast managed to get out. Towns and churches, clubs and businesses pounce on them and do everything they can think of to help them. All over the country people are raising money and offering shelter and sending trucks of supplies south. In some ways, that missing leadership is rising everywhere out of a national compassionate impulse to treat the victims of Hurricane Katrina as Americans want them to be treated.

There are many lessons here. Perhaps one is that, in our urgency to protect the nation against terrorist attacks which might be prevented, we've neglected planning and stockpiling for natural catastrophes which will happen. Hurricanes cannot be prevented, but surely these days of death and suffering caused by delay and neglect can be. It's a question of leadership.

And it's 18 minutes past the hour.

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