In September of 1990, one year after Hurricane Hugo blasted the South Carolina coast, there were no documentaries about it on HBO. Spike Lee never visited Charleston. Outside the northeast, "Hugo: One Year Later" newspaper stories were found buried inside, not on the front page above the fold. Few people outside the Carolinas had anything to say, positive or negative, about FEMA's response to what was then most costly hurricane to hit the US.
This week, one year after Hurricane Katrina, the media coverage is an inescapable deluge. Cable news is a non-stop flood of outrage, horror and political recriminations, interrupted only occasionally by overwrought warnings of the next tropical storm. Democrats have announced their "Katrina Response Plan," and President Bush's poll numbers on how he handled the crisis are lower today than they were one month after the hurricane hit.
One year after Hugo, nobody was asking "What is America going to do about the homeless of Charleston?" One year after Katrina, the homeless of New Orleans are the stars of their own prime-time reality show.
Why so different?
One answer is scale. It's hard to grasp just how hard the one-two punch of Katrina's power and the levees' failure hit New Orleans. As devastating as Hugo was, its impact pales in comparison. Hugo did about $7 billion in damage (in 1989 dollars), left 80,000 people homeless and about 80 people dead.
Katrina did more than $150 billion in damage, killed some 1600 people and chased more than one million from their homes. The city of Houston alone is still housing more evacuees today than were created by Hugo at the peak of its destruction.
But size isn't the only thing that matters. Most people outside Charleston forget what a fiasco FEMA was back in 1989. Then-Sen. Fritz Hollings was making headlines calling them jackasses for their slow reaction and non-stop snafus. And yet, the Hugo recovery was relatively successful.
Instead of finger-pointing, Republican Governor Carroll Campbell and Democratic mayor Joe Riley worked together and did their jobs. Campbell ordered the evacuation before Hugo, without any of Ray Nagin's uncertainty. Joe Riley took control of the recovery efforts, without the buck-passing of Kathleen Blanco.
One year after Hugo, Charleston was still hurting and some people were still homeless, but the recovery was well under way. As a result, Joe Riley and Carroll Campbell both improved their political standing after Hugo.
Why did the political leadership of New Orleans and Louisiana fail their citizens in a way that, for example, the governors of Mississippi and Alabama also hit by Katrina did not? Is it really the case that some unseen, racist hand is at play steering resources away from New Orleans' Ninth Ward? That's Spike Lee's theory, but then again, Lee also takes seriously the theory that Halliburton blew up the Louisiana levees, so…
It is more likely that, one year after Katrina, we are seeing what H. L. Mencken would have described as democracy at work democracy being "the theory that the common man knows what he wants, and deserves to get it good and hard."
One year after Hugo, there was no widespread unemployment in South Carolina. In Houston today, more than 75% of the Katrina evacuees living in government housing are still unemployed. According to Texas officials, it appears that few plan to get a job before their government subsidies end.
One year after Hugo, there was no significant increase in violent crime in the Carolina lowcountry. In Houston today, one in four of the 252 murders so far this year involved Katrina evacuees.
According to a Gallup survey, nearly 60% of all the Katrina evacuees across the entire state of Texas remain unemployed, in a state where overall unemployment is around 5%. According to that same survey, about 60% of these evacuees were living at or near the poverty line before Katrina even hit.
Hurricane Hugo gave the people of South Carolina the opportunity to rise, or fall, to the challenge. The character of South Carolina was revealed in the months and years that followed, and the result is the prosperous, thriving Charleston of today.
The people of New Orleans had the same opportunity. They responded by re-electing the worst big-city major in America, committing so much violent crime that the National Guard was forced back onto city streets, and then blaming their problems on the racism of George W. Bush the same president who is sending more than $110 billion to the Gulf coast.
The billions will be spent, but the problem of New Orleans won't be fixed. The real lesson of Hugo and Katrina one year later is this: Character counts.