An ill wind
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Date: 16 September, 2005


'The fact that even North American cities can be destroyed by mere weather is a sobering reminder of how vulnerable humankind is.'


Steve Tomkins reflects on the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

You may or may not remember hurricane Mitch. I can’t say I do. It struck Honduras in 1998, killing 11,000 people. But I’m sure that seven years from now we’ll both remember Katrina - despite the fact that (hopefully - the final figures are not yet known) it claimed fewer lives than Mitch.

This raises two questions in my mind. One: who thinks it’s a good idea to give hurricanes chummy names like this, as if 100mph winds aren’t so bad once you get to know them? We’re so used to it that we accept it as normal, but imagine reading in the paper about 'Train crash Bertie' or 'Terrorist attack Tracy'. It hardly does the disaster any favours.

Apparently it helps meteorologists to keep track of their cyclones if they call the first one of the year something beginning with A, the next one B, etc. (2005 started with Arlene, Bret and Cindy.) I’m sure it works well, it’s just a little odd for the rest of us.

The other question is why Katrina should make so much more of an impact on people in Britain than Mitch. The basic answer of course is that it happened in the United States.

Why should this make so much difference? One reason of course is the depressing but universal fact that we care more about people who we think of as being like us.

Another is that the US is the richest and most powerful country the world has ever known. The fact that even North American cities can be destroyed by mere weather is a sobering reminder of how vulnerable humankind is.

Also Brits have long had a kind of obsession with America, paying more attention to what goes on across the Atlantic than to what happens in our nearest neighbours 24 miles away.

Then again, these days that makes a certain sense. Those of us who travel on the London underground have more than an academic interest in US foreign policy and its repercussions.

And although what happened in New Orleans started off as a natural disaster, the horrifying failure of the government to relieve the city has turned it into something of a national scandal which may have an impact on the world.

This is because the government’s failure is directly linked to the home and foreign policy of the Bush administration. The fact that so many US troops are in Iraq has repeatedly been cited as a reason for the failure to mobilise the home front. More importantly his wild cuts in tax and public spending included halving the flood defences budget, making the stone heart of neo-conservatism directly responsible for the unnecessary scale of this tragedy.

The US people seem to have been shocked by other aspects of the response too. The news that the police of Gretna blockaded the bridge to stop refugees leaving the hell of New Orleans, condemning them quite possibly to death to keep their city tidy; the news that instead of pulling together in the face of adversity the people of New Orleans descended into gang warfare, rape, robbery and murder.

Historian Simon Schama has predicted it will be 'a watershed in the public and political life of the US', which sounds like wishful thinking to me, though I share his wishes if not his thinking.

But if it brings a new mood of self-questioning into US public life, a rethinking of overseas action as well as public services at home, after the last four years with a mindset somewhere between Marvel comics and the book of Revelation, then you know what they say about an ill wind.



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