Jewish World Review Sept. 19, 2005/ 15 Elul,
Exploiting the humanity in the storm
Water, not fire, trapped 34 men and women at St. Rita's, and the
pitiful evidence they left behind tell a desperate story of the will to
survive. The accounts of the authorities who discovered the bodies suggest a
ruthlessness of those who abandoned them. "The flood victims still lie where
they died draped over a wheelchair, wrapped in a shower curtain, lying on
a floor in several inches of muck," reports The New York Times. Frail and
trembling hands had nailed a table against a window, pushed a couch against
a door, lined up electric wheelchairs near the front entrance in the vain
hope of fleeing the gathering storm.
Vesuvius erupted without warning, and only a few could get out
of its way. The volcano doomed Pompeii. The early evidence, subject to
examination at a trial, suggests that the owners of St. Rita's were
repeatedly warned to evacuate their patients, but didn't. The state attorney
general says the owners declined to accept the offer of buses to rescue
those in their care. He has charged them with 34 counts of negligent
Blame has two human faces, those of Mable and Salvatore Mangano
who are charged with crimes, and those of the bureaucrats at the federal,
state and local levels who took neither Katrina nor their early
responsibilities as seriously as they should have. A trial will explore
whatever blame should attach to the Manganos for not acting in time, just as
investigations at the top will attempt to show what went wrong with
governments. Human failure is always best understood in retrospect, with the
20/20 vision of hindsight, but it's not difficult to round up a list of the
usual psychological suspects carelessness, selfishness, irresponsibility,
wishful thinking and greed.
How to prevent human vulnerabilities from taking over in future
disasters is much more difficult. The wrangling over federal, state and
local aid, particularly as set out in the president's ambitious speech on
Thursday night, demonstrates what we're up against; the catalog of human
flaws is a long one, even among those who sincerely want and intend to do
In the movie "Cabaret," Joel Grey and Lisa Minnelli sang of the
most alluring temptation of all: "Money, money, money, money, money." Add
red tape, the natural competition for power and control, and we've got
Arguments over Medicaid for the evacuees from the storm, for
example, further complicate attempts to rebuild lives. Eligibility
requirements vary from state to state, and evacuees from Katrina open a new
category of Medicaid recipients. Who gets Medicaid money, how they qualify
and how eligibility is determined is crucial. No one, especially
politicians, wants to be Ebenezer Scrooge when confronted with suffering,
but Pandora's familiar box floats above the receding floodwaters.
Negotiating state-by-state regulations is frustrating and time-consuming,
but one size fits all can be easily abused.
"You're torn between 'Take care of the people that need taking
care of, period' and doing it in a way that doesn't break the bank," Rep.
Joe Barton, Texas Republican, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce
Committee, tells The Wall Street Journal.
Great sums of public money are at stake in the restoration and
reconstruction of the flooded neighborhoods of New Orleans, and greedy hands
are already outstretched, eager to grasp contracts that will be worth in
excess of $200 billion. Red tape is always a nuisance, but cutting it
without caution invites fraud, and especially in Louisiana, where fraud was
perfected if not invented. Urgency can beget sloppiness and venality, and
like the devil, they come in many disguises. Sometimes the pig that oinks
the loudest becomes the pork chop.
We count on government to do its part, but we must be wary of
the middlemen of good intentions, those who come to do good and stay to do
well. Temptation flies in the eye of the storm, and often leaves the most
terrible devastation of all in its wake.
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