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"An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last."
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8.27.2006

"Surviving Katrina" Truly Must-See TV

MoltenThought had the opportunity to prescreen The Discovery Channel's Hurricane Katrina documentary which premieres tonight at 9 Eastern.

Short and sweet---you must see this documentary.

"Surviving Katrina" tells the story of the hurricane and its tragic aftermath through the experiences of a handful of different New Orleans residents, including two doctors who may well have saved hundreds of lives during the disaster.

CGI is put to good use in the first half to give a sense of the geography of the city and how it came to be flooded. The renactment and live footage drives home the magnitude of the disaster.

Of primary concern to me, of course, was how the failures at the city, state, and federal level were portrayed. Here's my tally:

Mayor Ray Nagin - severely criticized for failing to establish a citywide evacuation plan after the Hurricane Pam exercise the year before, portrayed as out-of-touch and overwhelmed; criticized for leaving city buses to be flooded.

Governor Kathleen Blanco - comes across largely as competent; her indecisiveness and failure to send in the Guard straight away not noted

FEMA Director Michael Brown - given the most facetime of any political official; spends nearly all of it pointing the blame elsewhere and trying to sound as though he was let down by the bureaucracy; looks like a complete weasel

Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff - completely out-of-touch and incompetent

President George W. Bush - basically clueless; tends to paper over serious issues with federal response

Let me state that with the sole exception of the kid gloves treatment of Blanco I think these characterizations are fair given the performance of these individuals. Rudy Giuliani demonstrated during 9/11 what political leadership should be during a disaster; none of the aforementioned people displayed anything like the leadership Giuliani provided to New Yorkers.

One serious flaw of the documentary is that it focuses exclusively on New Orleans. The chief reason federal aid did not materialize quickly enough in New Orleans was that the entire Gulf Coast had been devastated. This created an unprecedented logistical challenge---it was not possible to move enough assets into New Orleans to support the 90,000 or so people left behind; the only solution was to take them out of the area entirely, which could only be done overland. This took considerable time. This is why, by the way, the failed evacuation of the city is by far the biggest failure in this disaster---an effective evacuation plan implemented early enough would have made relief and rescue efforts manageable by government personnel able to respond quickly.

Otherwise, this is a gripping documentary which should drive home that we've got serious flaws in the way we handle major disasters. Given the threat of terrorism targeting our major cities, it is clear that federal, state, and local governments need to fundamentally rethink their approaches to disaster response. If a nuclear weapon detonated in Los Angeles or New York, the suffering will make Katrina (death toll: 1800) seem like a mosquito bite.

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