- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2005

In the days and weeks to come there will be enough time for the rankling and finger-pointing which inevitably accompany national emergencies. But now is not the time. The scope of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction across three Gulf Coast states is clearer than it was in the immediate aftermath of the storm’s passing, when officials in New Orleans seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. That was before New Orleans sank; before the death toll soared into the hundreds, if not more.

Fortunately, it appears as if most Americans and their elected officials are responding to Katrina’s wrath with the same composure and resiliency they exhibited following September 11. President Bush flew over the devastated regions before returning to Washington yesterday to deliver a heartfelt expression of the federal government’s commitment to rebuild and restore the Gulf Coast. Addressing the destruction he witnessed, Mr. Bush said that the “challenges we now face are unprecedented.” The administration’s decision to waive fuel-blending requirements should increase the available gasoline supply, which will prove useful in the short term.

Throughout most of the past few days, however, the eyes and ears of the nation have been focused on Govs. Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana and Haley Barbour of Mississippi, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Marty Evans, president of the American Red Cross. And of course on the survivors, whose ordeal seems to have only just begun. Hundreds are still stranded, many thousands are homeless and millions are without power. As the floodwater outside continues to rise, the 24,000 New Orleans residents holed up in the stifling heat of the Superdome are facing another evacuation, this time to Houston.

Meanwhile, in downtown New Orleans and across the coastal plains of Mississippi officials are struggling to maintain a semblance of authority. Mrs. Blanco has wisely called on the president to send federal troops to reinforce state and local forces that are busy battling looters as they continue their search for survivors. Undoubtedly some of the looters are simply grabbing what they need to survive, but not all. With roving mobs wading through the streets in search of booty, individuals have taken it upon themselves to protect their lives and property in whatever manner possible. This sort of instinctual vigilantism is justified considering the situation, but it underscores the grave necessity of restoring civil order as quickly as possible before the thin veneer separating civilization and chaos completely breaks down.

With so many trapped in downtown New Orleans, it is clear that the evacuation effort was not as successful as previously thought. Dozens who refused to leave are believed dead from a 25-foot storm surge that hit the Mississippi coast. The Coast Guard has rescued more than 2,000 people so far. The numbers still needing rescue are diverting precious resources and manpower otherwise intended to seal the levies, deliver food and medical aid to survivors and police the flooded streets. In short, three days after the storm hit, authorities are still in the search-and-rescue phase.

But as Americans mourn the mounting loss of life and near-total destruction, we must also act, and act swiftly. The American Red Cross estimates it will need close to $130 million in relief aid if it hopes to stave off starvation and disease. This figure, by the way, was the total amount spent from all four of last year’s destructive hurricanes that hit the United States. The Salvation Army estimates it will need $50 million — $20 million more than last year. Thankfully, Wal-Mart has taken the lead by giving $1 million to the Salvation Army. Readers are encouraged to contact the Red Cross at 1-800-HELP-NOW (www.redcross.org); the Salvation Army at 1-800-SAL-ARMY (www.salvationarmyusa.org); and Catholic Charities USA at 1-800-919-9338 (www.catholiccharitiesusa.org). The online community has also declared today Hurricane Katrina Blog Relief Day, where dozens of the most popular blogs will each sponsor a specific charity. For a list of charities to give to, visit Glenn Reynolds’ Web site at www.instapundit.com.

Even with the obstacles facing the country, it is still premature to assume that this disaster could have been avoided had government officials acted differently. We don’t intend to whitewash the hard lessons we will surely learn in the months ahead, but in the powerful face of nature sometimes there is little recourse. Further such disasters, natural and man-made, will doubtless strike us again. Yet the health of a society is measured in greatest degree by its capacity to come together in the most severe moments of crisis. The ability to stifle our need to blame someone applies to citizens as well as politicians, who often take their cue from public sentiment. Our task now is to get the job done, to save who and what we can, as we did four years ago.

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