I don't have much to say about Katrina that hasn't already been said better elsewhere. I do think it's important to remember that Katrina exposed existing problems in a dramatic way, and most of those problems were not simply issues of technical coordination. No matter how good our government gets at managing disaster relief, poor people will still bear the brunt of natural or manmade catastrophes. I liked Nicholas Kristof's take on this:
If it's shameful that we have bloated corpses on New Orleans streets, it's even more disgraceful that the infant mortality rate in America's capital is twice as high as in China's capital. That's right - the number of babies who died before their first birthdays amounted to 11.5 per thousand live births in 2002 in Washington, compared with 4.6 in Beijing.
Indeed, according to the United Nations Development Program, an African-American baby in Washington has less chance of surviving its first year than a baby born in urban parts of the state of Kerala in India.
Under Mr. Bush, the national infant mortality rate has risen for the first time since 1958. The U.S. ranks 43rd in the world in infant mortality, according to the C.I.A.'s World Factbook; if we could reach the level of Singapore, ranked No. 1, we would save 18,900 children's lives each year.
So in some ways the poor children evacuated from New Orleans are the lucky ones because they may now get checkups and vaccinations. Nationally, 29 percent of children had no health insurance at some point in the last 12 months, and many get neither checkups nor vaccinations. On immunizations, the U.S. ranks 84th for measles and 89th for polio.
One of the most dispiriting elements of the catastrophe in New Orleans was the looting. I covered the 1995 earthquake that leveled much of Kobe, Japan, killing 5,500, and for days I searched there for any sign of criminal behavior. Finally I found a resident who had seen three men steal food. I asked him whether he was embarrassed that Japanese would engage in such thuggery.
"No, you misunderstand," he said firmly. "These looters weren't Japanese. They were foreigners."
The reasons for this are complex and partly cultural, but one reason is that Japan has tried hard to stitch all Japanese together into the nation's social fabric. In contrast, the U.S. - particularly under the Bush administration - has systematically cut people out of the social fabric by redistributing wealth from the most vulnerable Americans to the most affluent.
Kristof makes important points. What happened in New Orleans was tragic, but the reason so many died was because of ongoing inequalities that most people manage not to think about most of the time. But there's more to it than bad policies. It'd be nice if everything bad that happened could be chalked up to one president or one political party or one side of the political spectrum. Then you just vote the bastards out and things should get better. But it's not that simple. We had Clinton for a long time, and things didn't get measurably better for most people around the world. It's nice that the Japanese get along well with each other, as Kristof acknowledges, but that doesn't do Bangladeshis or Bolivians much good when disaster strikes in those places (as it seems to do quite frequently). Local problems often have global roots, and when they do, they should have global solutions. The tragedy on the bridge in Iraq managed to share the spotlight in the US press with Katrina for nearly an entire day, until we realized New Orleans hadn't dodged a bullet after all. I'm guessing that Iraqis have been less than riveted by our national tragedy; for the past two weeks, they've been dealing with one of their own. Superficially, Katrina and the bridge disaster look like unfortunate accidents, until you realize that virtually the only ones who died were the ones who already had nothing. That's no accident; it's a failure to acknowledge and address pervasive, ubiquitous inequality.