Dear Mr. President,
Like most Americans, I am watching the horror unfold in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Also like many Americans, I have felt a deep and strong pull to respond in any small way that I can. For me, it has been through fundraising and through getting the word out as to how people, good American people, can respond and lend even a small hand in helping deal with such a great tragedy.
The tragedy itself, though, says a great deal not only about the generous spirit of Americans but about you on two critical levels. The first would be on a leadership level, and the second would be on a human level.
They say that the measure of a great leader is gauged not by how he handles the 90% of events that are anticipated and expected, but by how he responds to the 10% that is utterly unforeseeable. Hurricane Katrina would fall into that rare, unforeseeable category and your actions before, during and now after this event are very telling of your leadership.
The devastation that continues to unfold and worsen in the hurricane's aftermath put me in mind of other disasters, man-made and otherwise. Most specifically, the specter of 9/11 came before me very clearly. The relief that poured in to New York City and Northern Virginia following that tragic day were unprecedented. Events seemed to overwhelm reality and relief was poured into the areas affected. People knew where they could go for help. The infrastructure was in place to accommodate even the unforeseen. Frankly, I consider it nothing short of a miracle that things worked the way they did on 9/11. We were very lucky in that regard.
The relief coordination around Katrina has been abysmal. People don't know where to go. They don't know what to do. They have no information. No one can seem to agree on how to handle staunching the flow of water into New Orleans. The military is scrambling to assemble its assets effectively to provide the most basic of medical and sustenance needs. Don't mistake my tone - I have the greatest respect for the individuals who are risking their lives and safety to save the lives and secure the well being of survivors - but they are fighting an uphill battle because the coordination is simply criminal. The lives that will be saved in the coming days will be saved through the sheer power of human compassion carried by the individuals on the scene. The lives that could have been saved yet will be lost will be the price of terrible coordination. I lay that responsibility squarely at your feet.
Let me extrapolate somewhat and tell you that Katrina could have been any domestic disaster. The levees of New Orleans could have been compromised by a terrorist attack. A coordinated terrorist attack could have gone off in the Gulf region yielding devastation on par with what Katrina wrought. Refineries and chemical plants in the region could have been attacked through terrorist methods. The list of possibilities is endless.
So I ask you - how is it that, in post-9/11 America, we are failing so completely to render aid and comfort? How is it that today, this last day of August 2005, nearly four years after 9/11, we have no cohesive plan to deal with the region's refugees, the potentially one million American citizens without work or a home or basic care? That speaks directly to your leadership, sir, and it doesn't speak well for it at all.
The decisions that you have made in your capacity as President and leader of the United States of America have real human costs and implications. The decision to go to war in Iraq has directly affected the response to this disaster in overt and subtle ways. The deployment of Guardsmen in Iraq has left the affected states with fewer resources at a time when they need them the most. The decision to go to war in Iraq and the lack of planning to deal with the aftermath of the war has directly affected the stability of oil prices, which in turn affects every American. A disaster such as Katrina further strains a system that, through bad policy, is already too volatile to accommodate additional trauma. The decision to institute tax cuts at a time when we, as a Nation, should be planning for the worst-case scenarios of unexpected events has left cities and states and regions without the resources they need to effectively plan for and respond to disasters of any variety.
A certain component of the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina was unavoidable. But there is also a component that better leadership and some degree of forward-thinking would have prevented. Those deaths and tragedies should be laid at the foot of your short-sightedness and bad leadership. You should have to look at it. Perhaps it will be a reminder and you will act to prevent such things in the future.
I told you that I thought that this disaster said something about you on two levels and the second one is on a personal level. Your voice has been remarkably absent as the horror in the Gulf region has unfolded. Press clippings have shown you going about your planned events. You have given lip service to the devastation at certain points, but your actions speak louder than any words you can utter. A human response to this would have been to curtail matters of personal policy (stumping for support for the war in Iraq; the ghastly comparison of World War II with the war in Iraq; your baffling decision to do a photo opportunity with the Presidential guitar) and show an appropriate amount of respect for the lives being lost even as you plucked the strings.
Average Americans like me - who work for a living every day in this country - who don't have the luxury of a month-long vacation - took what little free time and disposable income we have and sprung into action. We raised money. We spread the word. We assembled information on what was needed and by whom and the best way to get it there. We felt - we watched our televisions and we cried at the tragedy we saw before us. Our response was so quintessentially human that your lack of it makes me wonder if we belong to the same human race.
So I'll leave you with this. A word image. You're in the dark, Mr. President. You can feel something pressing against the crown of your head - it's the roof of your attic. You're in water up to your neck. The water is filthy - you're surrounded by it - it's stiflingly hot in the little airspace you occupy. You're hungry and have nothing to eat. You're thirsty, dangerously dehydrated but you can't drink the very thing which may claim your life. Below you is everything you had. All your possessions - underwater. You don't know where your wife and children are and if they survived. You pray, Mr. President. Every time you hear what sounds like a boat or a helicopter you pray that someone will sense that you are under that roof needing help. You're too weak and too constrained by the space you occupy to signal for help. You have to wait, and as you wait, the water rises. If you're lucky, someone will find you. If you aren't, you'll die that slow, horrifying and frightening death. Alone.
Feel like playing us a tune now?
[editor's note, by RenaRF] Postscript: SusanHu rightfully points out that I should link to yesterday's Disaster Relief Diary, which raised about $8,500 for relief from this community alone.