Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Our tsunami...

Ah... the political soundbite...
"This is our tsunami," (Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway)
I read that quote a little while ago. Hurricane Katrina was a lethal natural disaster to be sure - one of the worst in US history. And the death toll and destruction continue to rise along with the water level that is sinking New Orleans.

This quote however came from Biloxi - one of the hardest hit by the initial storm surge - and was stated when only 56 deaths had been reported in a city of 50,000, and before the damage had been surveyed or the onslaught of flood waters hit New Orleans the following day.

Must we compare?

Politicians are always looking for their soundbites and catchphrases. And they choose their words carefully. The Mayor didn't say this was "like the tsunami", he said "this is our tsunami." The implication is very clear: "We're the same as them."

Hurricane Katrina is estimated to have caused $26 billion in property damages, destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of homes across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, left hundreds of thousands homeless, and the death toll will surely rise to more than the current 100 people - maybe 500 or 2000 counting those who may die from disease in the weeks to come. Not to mention the ongoing plight of the poor and indigent who have no financial means to relocate. Three states, $26 billion and hundreds or more dead...

Tragic, devestating and heartbreaking - Yes. But "our tsunami"?

Yes, this property devestation is "like" the devestation caused by a tsunami (which coincidentally is very much "like" a hurricane, and in fact a 30 foot storm surge could easily be called a tsunami). But this is not THE tsunami. And we all knew the tsunami which the Mayor refered to was THE Indonesian tsunami of 2004, which carries with it the following statistics:
  • 200,000+ dead across 13 countries
  • 5 Million people homeless
That's 200 Thousand dead. That's a bit different than 200 or even 2000. No, 100 dead in a city of 50,000 is not the same. But the question remains: why does it need to be compared to anything?

Since 9/11, when Rudolph Giuliani did in fact portray strength in the midst of disaster, it seems more and more politicians are trying to strengthen their own image by exploiting the tragedies around them - by using the my-tragedy-is-bigger-than-yours routine.

Not to be outdone in the politician's stupid analogy category, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is quoted as saying:
"I can only imagine that this is what Hiroshima looked like 60 years ago."
Whoa there Governor! Have you ever seen photos of Hiroshima and its aftermath? If not, you should go look at some now. The photos of Katrina's wrath are tragic - the photos of Hiroshima are horrific. Nothing, nothing, not a damn thing in common.

It seems to be symbolic of our culture of victimization that we all need to be the biggest victim around - and the political one-upsmanship in this regard is a disturbing trend. In the turn of a phrase, a politician can minimize the tragedy of preceding events in order to maximize the political sympathy for their current disaster - and to gain air time for their little clevernesses. This tragedy was a devestating hurricane - that alone should speak for itself. People understand that a hurricane isn't a walk in the park.

I am saddened increasingly by the plight of the indigent, sick and elderly in Louisiana and Mississippi as their conditions worsen. To them, this disaster was in fact exactly the same as the tsunami - they had nowhere, and no way, to go. But, we predicted Katrina and her path - and her destructive power - several days in advance. And we did nothing to help those who couldn't evacuate on their own get out. It is markedly different from the Indonesian tsunami.

Let's be clear. The tsunami came with no warning and struck in a matter of minutes and killed over 200,000 people who were defenseless and literally had nowhere to run. Entire pieces of land are now gone from the face of the earth. The death and material devastation in the Gulf are tragic and there are months of tragedy still to come, with few good options for the poor. But it is still nowhere near the scale of the Indonesian tsunami.

As bad as Katrina was, and is, it is not the tsunami - and is most certainly not Hiroshima. We need to find another analogy. Or better yet, stop using analogies altogether and simply call it what it is: Katrina, the most deadly and devestating hurricane in US history. Isn't that descriptive enough?



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