Hurricane Katrina and the Mumbai Floods By Siddharth SrivastavaSpecial to the Planet

Friday September 09, 2005

NEW DELHI—Even as the United States struggles to come to terms with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that has destroyed New Orleans, there is a sense of shock in India. Pictures of victims begging for food, reports of looting, rapes, racist attacks, an ineffective disaster management routine has revealed the innards of America that many believed never existed. After all, making it to America, the land of opportunities, freedom and quality lifestyle, remains one of the abiding Indian dreams. New Orleans is a modern city and a tourist destination. 

It makes matters all the more worse when the prediction about the hurricane had already been made but the necessary precautions not taken. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced with thousands probably dead. Damage is estimated at $25 billion and disruption to U.S. refineries has pushed oil prices to record highs above $70 a barrel. 

The visuals being beamed in and reports of desperation are generally associated with Africa or less developed countries in Asia. Two pictures displayed prominently by newspapers here speak of the tragedy. A black woman is lying dead on the roadside while a police car whizzes past. Another photograph is of a large group of women lunging for food being distributed.  

Some of the voices that resonate: “I really don't know what to say about President Bush,” said a 60-year-old Vietnam veteran. “He showed no lack of haste when he wanted to go to Iraq, but for his own people right here in Louisiana, we get only lip service.” 

“They di ed right here, in America, waiting for food,” said another affected person. 

Many have been talking about the recent natural disasters in India—the tsunami in December and the unprecedented rainfall in Mumbai in July which was perhaps dealt with much bett er, now that one can compare with New Orleans. In Mumbai, the government agencies were found severely wanting, but there have been innumerable tales of people pitching in to help citizens with food, shelter and transport that checked higher casualties. There have been some reports of vehicles stalled in water being burgled, but no arson and looting to the scale that happened in New Orleans. A couple who spoke to this correspondent talked about the help they received when their car was flooded. The locals in the area arranged for their night stay and assured that nobody would harm the car. Two days later, the couple went back to find their car intact. There have been many many such stories which have been covered on TV as well as print media. Similar was t he case with tsunami, though the governments of the coastal states did a better job in providing relief, apart from the citizen and private initiatives.  

Comparisons have also been made to the response to the London blasts in July this year. The emergenc y services in the city responded with a zeal that was commendable. Ordinary people chipped in. Although the police got it horribly wrong by shooting the Brazilian youth, by and large the response of the government agencies has been quite good. Just like n atural disasters, it is near impossible to prevent suicide attacks of the kind that the al Qaeda propagates that cause maximum damage to a peaceful civilian population and outrage in the electronic media. It is reactions post-tragedy that can go a long wa y in mitigating suffering. 

In a reversal of usual roles, India has offered a comprehensive assistance package to the United States, the world’s largest relief donor. An estimated 70 nations, from Azerbaijan to Venezuela, Afghanistan and Thailand have off ered cash contributions to the Red Cross totaling more than $100 million, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said. The American people too are responding with massive donations.  

India’s three pronged package attempts to export a combination of materials and expertise, given the experience in handling large scale disasters. Apart from a $5 million contribution to the American Red Cross, India has offered to send Army medical teams, rather than civilian, given the law and order problems. This is apart from expertise in water purification and consignments of medicines.  


The questions 

Many questions are being asked post-Katrina: Has America become too obsessed with other countries to ignore the interests of its own? Has the administration gone too far in pursuing its war on terror, the battles in Iraq and geo-strategic games to stamp its might, at the cost of its own people? Is something wrong with America that has been missed by people elsewhere? Has President George W. Bush committed too many resources in the battlefield which many consider unnecessary that has led to the absence of adequate manpower to protect American citizens? Have Bush’s tax cuts to please the rich and corporate America harmed the nation? 

A news agency has analyzed census data that shows that the residents in the three dozen worst affected neighborhoods in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were disproportionately minority and had incomes $ 10,000 below the national average.  

However, issues of poverty and racism have be en debated for long in every society. Mumbai has its share of poor and caste/regional/religion barriers exist. It is within such a structure that the respect for law and individual dignity has to exist, especially during a crisis.  

“What we are seeing in U.S.A. is complete chaos,” said Farida Lambe, a social worker involved in relief during the Mumbai floods. “My assessment is that many of the problems arose as the people are not used to facing calamities. They expect complete efficiency and find it difficult to cope if it does not come about.” 

The fingers thus point to Bush and his policies. When such a tragedy gets out of hand, it is natural to blame the government which has the responsibility to maintain law and order as well as ensure relief to the people affected fast enough.  

The question is, had not the Bush government been so embroiled in the war in Iraq as well as keeping an eye on suspected nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea, would matters have been better sorted? They should have been. At least there would have been no Cindy Sheehan with her sad story demanding attention. 

The question being asked is whether national resources that feed on American taxpaying public should be better deployed to ensure the people of Iraq or America. Sept. 11, 2001 changed the United States. It forced the country to look for the enemy out there, with Saddam Hussein the convenient scapegoat. Most agree that terrorism in the name of Islam has influenced youth around the world, whether in Britain, Europe or A merica and the solution does not lie in going for more wars. The world is grappling with the rise of Islamic terrorism which is a product of the Cold War that was played out in countries such as Afghanistan. 

The terrorists were never holed up in Iraq and the worst of them are still somewhere in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Bush won the first election as people backed him on the supposed war on terror. The terrorists continue to multiply while Americans die in Iraq and New Orleans. The effects of Hurricane Katrina will be felt for long. It will make American policy makers look inwards. As many experts have predicted the Republicans will have to answer for a lot when elections happen again in the United States in 2008. 


Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.