Katrina is a catastrophe in both natural terms and emergency response terms but there might yet be another way to mark the event as scandalous: The dignity of the dead and their rights to be duly counted. Remember, this is the administration that prohibits news coverage of coffins returning from Iraq.
Col. Terry Ebbert, New Orleans homeland security chief (and someone who likely deserves much of the blame game’s pointed fingers) spoke of the fear that as many as 10,000 may be dead and for the moment seemed to doubt it:
“Some of the catastrophic deaths that some people predicted may not have occurred… Numbers so far are relatively minor as compared to the dire projections of 10,000.”
Ebbert said the search for the dead will be done systematically, block-by-block, with dignity and with no news media allowed to follow along. “You can imagine sitting in Houston and watching somebody removed from your parents’ property. We don’t think that’s proper,” he said.
I’ve had this fear from the moment reporters started asking for estimates of the dead; the fear is that the toll will be misrepresented by homeland security and the administration. Mostly because I realize that a number in the thousands, much less ten thousand, will guarantee greater instances of blame and recrimination.
These people did not die noble deaths like the 9/11 victims and their fates will not inspire a retaliatory invasion of a foreign nation (but then neither did 9/11). These people did not evacuate like they should have. In reality they are embarrassments for too many in authority and antithetic to an administration seeking good news from Iraq and the economy. A memo from Michael Brown to FEMA employees before they arrived charged them to “convey a positive image of disaster operations to government officials, community organizations and the general public.“ It’s too late for that now but is this a foreshadowing of the “good news” to come?
Lack of preparedness for a major hurricane, subsequent levee breaks and several days taken before rescue operations began has done little to convey positive images. Thousands upon thousands dead will do even less to inspire positive responses and forgiveness from a nation poised to grieve. The area hurricane Katrina devastated was huge. It will be amazing that only a few hundred died but something tells me the toll will be correspondingly low.
I hope I’m wrong and that each fatality will be counted with cause and time of death documented and disseminated, but who can we trust to see it through?
Someone fears the toll from Katrina.