Katrina and Coronavirus: The Lessons We Didn’t Learn

I’m reading “The Great Deluge”, an incredible look at Hurricane Katrina. The 2005 storm ravaged the Gulf Coast, killing thousands, injuring tens of thousands, and affecting the lives of millions. The lesson? In the world of coronavirus, the lesson is that we haven’t learned anything.

All of the symptoms of 2020’s dysfunction were present in the summer of 2005. The storm wasn’t a surprise. Dozens of experts had been warning city, county, and state officials for three decades. The city’s pumps were nearly 100 years old. Nearly every mayoral administration in New Orleans kicked the can on the costly levee and canal upgrades, repairs, and improvements for generations. It wasn’t a priority, and in some defense of those officials, the other priorities they cited included education, housing, and other projects to support the city’s massive population stuck below the national poverty line.

Of course, many of those investments didn’t actually make it to people in need. Tens of millions of dollars went to courting and keeping oil and gas companies and propping up a shipping industry battling to stay relevant against other ports across the country. And like many cities big and small, plenty of money was wasted. The improvements needed to fend off disaster were always on the next agenda, tucked into the next budget. Tomorrow never comes until it does.

It’s the same story today. Even with a literal playbook from the Obama administration, Donald Trump had other priorities. Instead of re-stocking and expanding critical supplies that proved invaluable during the H1N1 outbreak. Instead of supporting pandemic preparedness, Trump folded the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense at the NSC into another department, allegedly on the advice of former Def. Secretary John Bolton.

Even if prepared, the same lethargic, apathetic response from the federal government in 2005 was reprised in 2020. Michael Brown, the much-maligned FEMA director whose hesitance and slow-moving response to Katrina has been almost indiscernible from the White House Task Force, headed by Vice President Mike Pence. While state and local officials take aggressive action to fight the pandemic and ask for much-needed aid, the White House has gone from calling the pandemic a hoax, to asking for a 15-day shutdown, to floating the idea of re-opening businesses at the worst possible time, to finally withholding federal aid and support that it had already promised state governments.

Like Katrina, the Trump administration knew this was coming. They had a lot more time and information than a weather report, and even with the first cases reported as far back as November in China, they did nothing, Even as thing spiraled out of control overseas through December and January, the White House was largely flat-footed in its response. Even when hundreds of cases turned to thousands in states like Washington, New York, and Michigan, Trump was spouting inaccurate or misleading information that put lives in danger.

More than that, he was lying. Naval ships that were en route to New York Harbor were actually in Virginia, weeks away from deployment. The Defense Act was invoked, and narrowly at that, more than a week after he first mentioned the idea in a press conference. Those daily performances, which have ranged from self-aggrandizement to angry outbursts at reports, have turned into national embarrassments.

Finally, 2020 and 2005 have one impossibly poignant similarity. As the most vulnerable citizens bear the brunt of unpreparedness, the federal government is already trying to shift blame down the ladder. This isn’t over; this is an administration trying to rewrite a narrative, rewrite history, in real-time. Trump’s childish feuds with Washington Governor Jay Inslee, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, have nothing to do with reality. They’re asking for support, untangling the bureaucratic tangle of order, agencies, and red tape to access the sort of supplies the Trump administration has promised but has, so far failed to deliver.

People are dying. The most vulnerable people are dying. The poor, the elderly, the sick. Many have had little to no access to the sort of preventative care that might have given them a fighting chance. Many have waited days, even weeks to get tested, if they could get a test at all, out of fear of the expense. So far, 2020 is putting a glaring light onto the same inadequacies and short-comings from the federal government in 2005. It’s not that we didn’t see this coming. It’s that we didn’t learn anything.



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