Advance warnings ignored

The catastrophe appears to have stretched the resources of the world’s most powerful nation to the limit. The US government asked the European Union for blankets, medicine, water and 500,000 food rations.

Offers of help poured in from around the world. The tiny impoverished island of Cuba, still subject to US economic embargo, offered to send 1,100 doctors with 26 tonnes of medicine.

Cuba itself is regularly swept by hurricanes and is highly experienced in dealing with natural disasters. Last year its government successfully evacuated 1.3 million people, more than 10 per cent of the country’s population, without a single life lost, during an especially powerful hurricane.

The head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Stephen Johnson called Hurricane Katrina ‘the worst natural disaster our government and people have had to face’.

Katrina’s devastation was entirely predictable. The authorities had advance warning of a Force 5 hurricane yet failed to evacuate tens of thousands of people who were too poor to make their own way out of the city.

Many people had long warned of disaster for flood-prone New Orleans, pointing to the need to strengthen the levees and pumps and fortify the coastlands.

However the Bush administration slashed the budget of the New Orleans Corps of Engineers by 44%. Plans to fortify New Orleans levees and upgrade the system of pumping out water had to be shelved.

Bush also downgraded the capacity of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to respond to natural disasters.

The government required the Agency to devote 75% of its budget to ‘counter-terrorism’, shifting resources away from protective and responsive measures against hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters. n