Part of Ken’s point is that failings on various levels made Katrina worse, but they did just that: they made Katrina worse. He notes the difference between nature & man. And nature is likely to fight us harder than man. If civilization reaches the point where a category five hurricane aimed at a populous and wide region is just a minor problem – well, that will be good. And technology & planning may indeed reach that point. Even with all the incompetence that we will complain about for years, this was not as bad as 1900 Galveston; it was destroyed and never, not really, came back. The 6000 dead will surely not be topped by Katrina, despite its broader swath and a modern higher population. (The poor, then, in Galveston were the new immigrants; its role as Ellis Island of the south was never regained.) Indeed, apparently New Orleans got a larger percentage of its population out than Ivan would have predicted. And the misery of Mississippi and Alabama appears mitigated by better planning.
But, at the end, the hurricane & flood left death and destruction. A better plan – and most any plan followed in NO would have been better – wouldn’t have been “good,” merely better. We make these distinctions and look to place blame. We do this because we see man as responsible and those in authority as more responsible yet. We don’t often think in terms of “fate” – even those of us who have lived much of our lives on plains where the sweep of a cold front moving across the horizon puts man’s power in perspective and a year’s livelihood ruined by hail is not as uncommon as we would like don’t throw up our hands and say, “It’s God’s will” all that quickly. We know (or at least sense) if we fatalistically accept nature’s force, we are unlikely to build levees and devise plans. We don’t find such a view of fate attractive nor useful, so we turn from it.
And even if we see a certain stoicism as heroic, we expect it to be mixed with pragmatism. Central to our concepts of ourselves and others is our sense that the will is quite important. The parable of the talents emphasizes not what is done wrong but what is not done right. Human failure often comes from “not doing”: If Nagin had spent “quality” time on the plan, if he’d declared evacuation earlier, if the buses had been used. Or, if Blanco had led (at all it would seem), let the Red Cross in, declared an emergency earlier, not worried about her turf in relation to Nagin, in relation to Bush.
So, with Katrina, eventually we will need to balance what could have been done and wasn’t with what was beyond the ability of engineers and politicians, weathermen and aid agencies to “solve.” As Ken observes, we need to be realistic about the power of the weather; we need to accept that any government is likely to have some flawed leaders (a corrupt one only more so).
We have survived, I suspect, because of our refusal to accept fate; we assign blame for good adaptive reasons: it makes us take responsibility, it leads to improvements, it challenges us. We shrug off limitations to what we can control – and then find we can do more than we thought. This moves us toward the “better.” This is good, and if right now it seems partisan and political, it is in the long run a more useful way of approaching nature. Those who accept fate readily imprison themselves, limit their horizons. They don’t use those muscles that responsibility grows. Whether they think that way of hurricanes or terrorist attacks, their passivity scares me more than another’s testoserone.
But, as we have increasingly taken (and probably more often assigned) human responsibility where another time might have seen fate, I suspect we have also become a bit unrealistic. We shouldn’t forget the power of nature: of hurricanes and tsunamis, of blizzards and droughts. Do we think we can stop an ice age or stay free of meteors?
Of course, 9/11 could have been prevented but it wasn’t; Katrina–at least as far as anything we now know–could not have been. In both cases, our ability to predict, to prepare, and to react can be improved. If we merely say, ah, that is fate, we underestimate our abilities and endanger our children. If, however, we think we can, ultimately and finally, control man or nature, well, we have lost our perspective. Sometimes, we think just that: the other side of the “right to die” is the “right to live.” Exactly what do those “rights” mean in any broad sense? Do we honestly think we get to will such a choice in any other than a pretty cosmetic way? (Yes, I would prefer assisted suicide to a long life in some twilight zone, but it bothers me that anyone would put that preference in terms of a “right to die.”)
We immunize ourselves, don’t take those curves too fast, exercise. We make evacuation plans and we appreciate Lex’s analysis & warnings about China: these are grown-up adaptive responses to a world that remains in large part unpredictable and dangerous. It is, however, considerably less dangerous & chaotic because our culture doesn’t say, Ah, such is fate.