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  • Katrina and the European news coverage, and a comparison to the European heatwave 2003

    Posted by Ralf Goergens on October 14th, 2005 (All posts by )

    Victor Davis Hanson is commenting on Hurricane Katrina and European reaction , in words that seem to reflect the sentiments of many bloggers, from what I have seen:

    More recently, Hurricane Katrina was often offered as proof of American environmental, class and racial chaos. Yet by any fair token, we are recovering pretty well. A mammoth hurricane overwhelmed a city below sea level, on a stormy coast, positioned on a huge river delta and beneath a vast lake. Yet in an August 2003 heat wave, 15,000 French citizens — far more than were lost in New Orleans — died, while a distracted nation hit the beaches for their promised state-subsidized vacations.

    Let’s start with the chaos: It can hardly be denied that local and state authorities badly screwed up in their response, or rather non-response to Katrina, nor that the defenses New Orleans had against flooding were insufficient. The American media also did their best to exaggerate a bad situation. So of course the foreign media picked up on this and passed it on their readers and viewers, along with some spin of their own; reaction American MSM to over-hyped foreign disasters hasn’t been different in the past. Fine, this kind of coverage has hurt Hanson’s patriotic feelings, but there is no call to paint Europe with such a broad brush, just because media outlets over here were parroting their American counterparts’ hyperbole. Most people were horrified, and the gleeful responses Hanson is writing about were few and far between.

    As to the racial aspect: If dark-skinned people are seen floundering in deep shit, the categorical imperative of polical correctness (so to speak) dictates the assumption that Whitey has pitched them in there head-first. And if the Whitey in Chief goes right ahead and affirms this assumption,

    The task of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina is a chance to wipe out poverty and remnants of racial injustice, US President George W Bush has said.

    He said those hit hardest by the hurricane were already impoverished because of years of discrimination.

    “As we clear away the debris of a hurricane, let us also clear away the legacy of inequality,” Mr Bush said at a memorial service in Washington.

    then there is no stopping people. Why, under these circumstances all those asskissing interviews on German TV with black musicians from New Orleans, with interviewers and interviewees agreeing that it all only could happen due to racism, were practically mandatory. It’s not as if many American commentators, and certainly none working in the mainstream media (nor for that matter, any who hope to ever work in them) had pointed out that in a city where blacks control city hall, the city administration, the school boards, the police force, and so on, white discrimination against black people probably isn’t the main problem – so why expect it from liberal and leftwing commentators abroad? Yes, the claim that American society is racist is false and outrageous, but those making it only have to repeat what they hear coming out of the United States over and over again. Instead of getting angry at foreigners it would be more productive to work at limiting the influence of domestic racial demagogues, and to avoid working into their hands, as the president did when he said what I quoted above.

    Regarding the recovery: I suppose it is uncouth to point that out, but thanks to state and local politics, and the level of competence and honesty state and city administrations have been displaying, there isn’t all that much to recover to.

    Last but not least there is the comparison of the European heatwave with Hurricane Katrina. I for my own part find it distasteful to compare the bodycounts of American and European disasters to make a political point, and these two events aren’t comparable anyway, but I’ll damn well finish what Hanson started.

    So, the official number of European fatalities due to the 2003 heatwave is 35,118 for Europe overall, while in France 14,082, and in Germany roughly 7.000, people died, to name just the two most affected countries. Peak temperatures in France went up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, while in Germany it was up to 105.4 degrees Fahrenheit, for both countries the hottest weather since official measurements were taken. Additional research, by examining the annual rings of old trees and other methods, led to the conclusion that the summer of 2003 had even been the hottest since 1540.

    These temperatures are easily survivable, even in a weakened state, with air conditioning. Unfortunately few Europeans did, for the weather so far hadn’t been hot enough to justify the expense. Considering that all told hundreds of millions of people were exposed to hot temperatures, without the benefit of air conditioning, a death toll of 35,000 isn’t surprising, and even seems rather low.

    Given the unprecedented temperatures in Europe during 2003, there are no good historical values from over here to make comparisons, but the 1995 heatwave in Chicago serves to demonstrate the lethality of such temperatures for the elderly and people in a bad state of health:

    For a week, the heat persisted, running between the 90s and low 100s. The night temperatures, in the low to mid-80s, were unusually high and didn’t provide much relief. Chicago’s houses and apartment buildings baked like ovens. Air-conditioning helped, of course, if you were fortunate enough to have it. But many people only had fans and open windows, which just recirculated the hot air.

    The city set new records for energy use, which then led to the failure of some power grids—at one point, 49,000 households had no electricity….

    … Children riding in school buses became so dehydrated and nauseous that they had to be hosed down by the Fire Department. Hundreds of young people were hospitalized with heat-related illnesses. But the elderly, and especially the elderly who lived alone, were most vulnerable to the heat wave.

    After about forty-eight hours of continuous exposure to heat, the body’s defenses begin to fail. So by Friday, July 14, thousands of Chicagoans had developed severe heat-related illnesses. Paramedics couldn’t keep up with emergency calls, and city hospitals were overwhelmed. …

    Hundreds of victims never made it to a hospital. The most overcrowded place in the city was the Cook County Medical Examiners Office, where police transported hundreds of bodies for autopsies…

    …perhaps the best measure of heat deaths comes from another figure—the “excess death” rate—which counts the difference between the reported deaths and the typical deaths for a given time period. According to this measure, 739 Chicagoans above the norm died during the week of 14 to 20 July—which means that Donoghue had been conservative in his accounts.

    Over seven hundred heat fatalities in a single city, in as single week – extend that to several European countries that mostly lack air conditioning, and you can see how a lot of people will die, even if temperatures in most parts of these countries stay well below the peak values. Global climate trends seem to indicate that such heatwaves will become more common in the future, even if there isn’t any global warming as such. The defense against this threat is the installation of air conditioning in more homes, and in places where this is not feasible (people living in buildings that are several hundred years old, for example), the furnishing of public buildings as cooling centers, as Chicago did after 1995.

    Of course, without any warning that Europe might be hit with such an exceptional heatwave, Europeans had no reason to anticipate a need for air conditioning, and so those in a vulnerable state succumbed. Absent air conditioning the vast majority would have died, even if their relatives hadn’t been on vacation.

    In other words, Katrina and our heatwave were indeed two altogether different events. It also wasn’t very classy of Professor Hanson to bring up the victims of the heatwave, just because of his annoyance with foreign reporting about Katrina. His article hasn’t exactly increased my respect for him.

     

    10 Responses to “Katrina and the European news coverage, and a comparison to the European heatwave 2003”

    1. James R. Rummel Says:

      It’s a good post, Ralf, and I have to agree with you in the main. Unless I’m reading it wrong, however, you point out that blaming European media for carping about supposed racial inequality is wrong because they are just parroting what American journalists are saying. I think that you’re making the same mistake with Hanson.

      American pundits are sensitive to criticism from Europe because we’ve had to put up with unreasonable, irrational and unjustified rhetoric for years. Your own outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was one of the worst offenders, and his recent teary-eyed rant against the US is a perfect example. (I noticed that he mentioned the Katrina deaths to make a political point.)

      You suggest that it would be more productive if US pundits would work to limit the influence of domestic demogogues. That’s good advice, and I do note that Schroeder is on his way out. His strategy of using anti-American sentiment to win elections didn’t work this time around, although it was a very near thing. What remains to be seen is if his removal from office results in any significant softening of German attitudes about the US.

      Until there is an obvious improvement, anti-European screeds like Hanson’s are to be expected. Until European countries stop electing leaders who beat the anti-American drum, they’ll deserve it.

      James

    2. Ralf Goergens Says:

      I wasn’t saying it wrong to critize our media, for they deserve all the criticism they get, I meant the way Hanson was going on about ordinary European, in that passage more specifically, ordinary Frenchmen.

      But fact remains, as long as Amercan media keep dumping on their own country it is hopeless to get our media to tone it down. That’s why I think that it is more productive to sort out the American media first and to turn on Sharpton (who helped to instigate a riot that got several people killed, without paying a price, after all), and Jesse Jackson et al.

      I also agree on Schröder, but this time around the big issue was flat tax, anti-Americanism was very much a a side-issue.

    3. Jeff Says:

      So Americans are to blame for their own negative press coverage abroad and Europeans can’t be expected to do better? Respectfully, Ralf, I think you’re not offering a solution as much as you’re merely restating the problem.

    4. Ralf Goergens Says:

      No Jeff, that wasn’t waht I was getting at.

      Ridiculously exaggerated American coverage will be picked up abroad, no way around that. You also have to distinguish between the generell populations of Europe and America and the media.

    5. Scotus Says:

      With respect, Ralf, only one paragraph of Hanson’s article compares Katrina to the heat wave. It’s just one example, among many others, that he cites of the European tendency to feel pompously superior to America, when Europe’s failings are as bad, if not worse, than America’s. Hanson’s ultimate point is that America should force Europe to stand on its own feet by withdrawing our troops. What do you think about this?

    6. Jeff Says:

      Ralf, I see your point, but I’d be curious for your opinion about the relationship between the European people and their media. Do European people hold these anti-American opinions because it’s the main (and sometimes only) perspective their media provide, or are the media simply providing the perspective that the European people are demanding?

    7. Ralf Goergens Says:

      Scotus,

      With respect, Ralf, only one paragraph of Hanson’s article compares Katrina to the heat wave. It’s just one example, among many others, that he cites of the European tendency to feel pompously superior to America, when Europe’s failings are as bad, if not worse, than America’s.

      And I chose that paragraph, because it’s an example for a number of compoarisons coming from America, comparing the two events.

      Hanson’s ultimate point is that America should force Europe to stand on its own feet by withdrawing our troops. What do you think about this?

      Not a bad idea in priciple, but it would be counterproductive if set into practice right now. It would widen the Atlantic even further, figuratively speaking, and it wouldn’t lead to increased European defnese spending, for the political climate isn’t like that right now. Said climate is grdually shifting, with Schröder gone and chirac on his way out, so it ma be better to wait a bit until we have govenments that are ready to act responsibly.

    8. Ralf Goergens Says:

      Jeff:

      Ralf, I see your point, but I’d be curious for your opinion about the relationship between the European people and their media. Do European people hold these anti-American opinions because it’s the main (and sometimes only) perspective their media provide, or are the media simply providing the perspective that the European people are demanding?

      There is a kind of interaction here, people are used to a steady diet of anti-Americanism, and that serves as the background for what people expect from the media.

      You have to keep one fundamental fact in mind: Anti-Americanism isn’t based on envy towards America’s greater wealth and power, rather anti-American propaganda is designed to prevent its recipients from feeling envy towards Americans.

      The American way of life, and doing business, is undoubtedly producing better results than the various European ones, and this is undermining the position of the European elites. To limit the damage, they have the media they own (or control in the case of public broadcasters) put out said propaganda, so that the unwashed masses, as they see us, won’t want to emulate those uncouth Americans.

      Conversely, most people know that something is going wrong over here, but have invested so much work in what they own, that they desperately want to hear that all that time and effort they spent on it has not been in vain, so they are more than willing to hear that American wealth and power comes with an unacceptably high price. That makes them eager consumers of the propaganda I mentioned, and they will come back on a daily basis to ask for more.

      In other words, anti-Americanism has become the new opiate of the masses, to quote Karl Marx. I think that is absolutely hilarious, if you consider that he also had said: ‘History occurs twice, the first time as tragedy, the the second time as farce’ (Alright, the quote is a bit streamlined :).

    9. TM Lutas Says:

      I think it’s eminently fair to compare the Katrina mess with the heat wave. The forerunner for Katrina was, of course, Betsy, the 1965 hurricane that demonstrated that New Orleans was in serious peril from strong storms. The forerunner for the heat wave of 2003 is, of course, Chicago, a northern city without a history of such high heat, similar to the lack of high heat history in France and the FRG.

      Then again, building a levy system around a city is a much bigger and complex undertaking than taking a survey of public buildings with AC and stocking up sufficient temporary cooling units so that they can be pulled out in case of emergency.

      If nothing else, a little bit of planning ahead would have diverted some refrigerated meat trucks along with some AC duct work and you could have had jury rigged cooling centers on day two and a little bit less meat at the butcher’s shops. The cost would have been less than the cost of the funerals.

      This is the kind of thing a “caring” social model would have thought about. Unfortunately, the model the FRG employs is one that is rigid, uninovative, and ultimately uncaring in its effects. Eurosocialism of the Schroeder variety is ultimately all show and no go. People end up dying in greater numbers but in unpredictable ways that it is hard to trace back to the culprits in government who sealed their doom.

    10. Ralf Goergens Says:

      Yes, I agree that the reliance on our big government models leaves us open to such dangers, but nobody saw this one coming.