Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Reinventing Katrina

Just what did they know and when did they know it? That seems to be the never ending question posed by the media in regard to Hurricane Katrina. Until now. The Associated Press obtained a video containing a briefing of the president on the day before Hurricane Katrina struck. In it, the president assured all that "We are fully prepared."

But the federal government does not prevent hurricanes. Nor can it assure us that everyone is "fully prepared." All government can do is take money from those who chose not to live in hurricane-prone areas and give it to those who did.

But in the news media's quest for a good story, they've ignored such realities.

Preferring to believe that government is God, the media has characterized its response as that of an emperor fiddling while New Orleans drowned. They write about Bush "at his vacation ranch in Texas" and a "relaxed Chertoff, sporting a polo shirt." This month's issue of Popular Mechanics has a great article entitled "Debunking Katrina Myths," in which the authors shed light on many of the exaggerations put forth by news sources. One myth is that government response was the slowest in history. However, this is not the case. "In fact, the response to Hurricane Katrina was by far the largest--and fastest-rescue effort in U.S. history, with nearly 100,000 emergency personnel arriving on the scene within three days of the storm's landfall."

Another pervading myth is that Katrina was one of the strongest hurricanes in history. This is also simply untrue, as Popular Mechanics points out, "it was in fact a large, but otherwise typical, hurricane. On the 1-to-5 Saffir-Simpson scale, Katrina was a midlevel Category 3 hurricane at landfall. Its barometric pressure was 902 millibars (mb), the sixth lowest ever recorded, but higher than Wilma (882mb) and Rita (897mb), the storms that followed it. Katrina's peak sustained wind speed at landfall 55 miles south of New Orleans was 125 mph; winds in the city barely reached hurricane strength. By contrast, when Hurricane Andrew struck the Florida coast in 1992, its sustained winds were measured at 142 mph. And meteorologists estimate that 1969's Category 5 Hurricane Camille, which followed a path close to Katrina's, packed winds as high as 200 mph."

While the Popular Mechanics article lists a few suggestions for lessons to learn from Katrina, many of which still utilize tax dollars but with an emphasis on local rather than federal response, it missed the most important lesson: Government is not God. It is this lesson that allows us to shed the belief that government knows best and can make our decisions and provide for our every need. It is this lesson that allows us to refute policymakers who claim, as Mayor Nagin did, that rebuilding New Orleans is "too important to be left to the market." It is this lesson that allows us to prosper.

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