Sunday, June 22, 2008


When reading this Times article, I was struck by this:

As part of her research, Ripley visited the “burn tower” at Kansas City Fire Department, where firefighters practise their drills. “You’re in full gear, and they fill the room with smoke. You literally cannot see a thing, it’s like a blindfold. You become very attached to the person you’re with. You also think it might be useful to know where the stairs are.” When New Orleans was inundated following Katrina, stories circulated of the depravity supposedly engulfing evacuees at the city’s Superdome. “The police chief went on Oprah and said babies were getting raped,” recalls Ripley. It wasn’t true, nor were most of the stories, but, “They got traction because they fitted into an existing narrative that the public will go crazy and do horrible anti-social things in disasters.”

If those rumours fitted into a right-wing (not to mention racist) agenda, another part of Katrina mythology owes more to a leftish, liberal mindset in the media. This is the perception that the poor died for lack of transport while the rich got out of town. “The victims of Katrina were not disproportionately poor and black, taking into account this was a disproportionately black and poor city to start with,” says Ripley. “They were disproportionately elderly. And the number one reason people cited for not leaving town was not the lack of a car, but the fact that there had been plenty of hurricane warnings before and the predicted devastation had not occurred.”

Psychologists call this “the bias to normalcy”. In making a judgment, people rate their own personal experience and emotion above the advice of experts. “Normally this is fine,” says Ripley, “but living in a dense city on water, you need to rely more on the data.” Ripley recognises this tension in her argument. She wants more self-reliance but she thinks governments “need to step in where the brain’s risk analysis is not very good”. This would mean acquainting people with the risks of living in a tsunami inundation zone, or on a flood plain, or with a swimming pool a toddler can access, or indeed on the San Andreas Fault. “Everyone knows there’s going to be a huge earthquake in San Francisco more or less any day now.”

This "bias to normalcy" does tend to make people disbelief that those dire warnings about hurricanes. People get used to hearing about the catastrophic damage from the storm surge and the high winds. Hurricane warnings play in the background and people think, "It can't happen to us". My Mom didn't want to evacuate for Hurricane Katrina. We lied to her and she came with us. She didn't want to leave her animals. She didn't want to leave her home. Over 2 million people in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama evacuated before Hurricane Katrina. The "bias to normalcy" was suspended and those that chose to stay did so because they did not think anything bad would happen or it couldn't be worse than previous hurricanes such as Camille or Betsy. One is given the impression that no one heeded the hurricane warnings. If those 2 million people had not heeded the warnings (white, black, poor, and rich), the death toll from Hurricane Katrina would have been far greater.

No one in Mississippi expected 100,000 homes to be destroyed. No one in New Orleans really believed that the levees would fail and flood 100,000 homes. No one can really imagine the potential for destruction in a hurricane and other natural disasters. Even today, over 2 1/2 years later, I still have trouble comprehending the destruction even though I'm living among the ruins and the rebuilding.

Each year, at the start of hurricane season, government agencies like MEMA say to get ready. Bloggers like Instapundit post disaster preparedness lists. Each year, hundreds of thousands like myself, prepare and do so in advance of any hurricane warnings. Many of those who lost their homes in Katrina doubtless did so as well. Their homes were underwater or swept away along with provisions.

How would you survive if your home was swept away or flooded? Would you be paralyzed with fear? Would you be able to get out or get to higher ground? There are so many stories of people who did the right thing when faced with flooding. If they hadn't known what to do, the death toll from Katrina would have been greater. There are many remarkable such as Karen Abernathy and her family. She is a news anchor for WLOX. She lived in a home in an area that didn't see flooding in Hurricane Camille or for a hundred years. Yet she and her husband found themselves in the predicament of many others: waters rising in their homes. They didn't panic. The went to the second story of their home and the water was still rising. They escaped via their floating hot tub and managed to make it to a neighbor's home. Stories like hers were played out across the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in Louisiana. I think it is remarkable that so many people knew the correct things to do in order to survive. Yet, the images from Hurricane Katrina paint a picture of seemingly helpless and paralyzed people. The images of the Coast Guard helicopters are dramatic. That is the second-part of the story. The first part was those who survived and made it to the rooftops, to the overpasses, the boats, the trees, and the buildings on higher ground. Far from being whiny and paralyzed: They did the correct things once the waters started rising. If they hadn't, the Coast Guard wouldn't have had 50,000 people to lift to safety.

At the beginning of the Times Online article, there is this:

What makes one person a survivor and another a victim of the same disaster? Amanda Ripley, who has spent seven years researching her new book on how people respond to extreme events, believes that we must take responsibility – and action – if we want to stay alive when bad things happen

People in New Orleans and its environs, Mississippi, and Alabama, did take responsibility and action for their survival. If they hadn't, the death would have been in the tens of thousands instead of 1,600. I wish others would stop knocking survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Ordinary people did what it took to ensure their survival as well as their families and neighbors.

The news media gleefully shows those who have chosen to be victims. It makes for better story: If it bleeds, it leads. For every person you see on the news saying the help from FEMA, Red Cross, etc wasn't enough, there are tens of thousands of more who are quietly rebuilding businesses and homes. For every story of those who are still living in FEMA assisted housing and say it is too hot to look for work, there are thousands of others who are working full-time jobs and rebuilding their homes or awaiting affordable housing.

We are beyond the survival stage. Now the difficulties are navigating through bureaucracy, new zoning which has made some people have to rebuild their homes 20 feet up, insurance issues(hey, State Farm, if none of the storm damage was caused by wind, why are you dropping wind-coverage on so many policies?), fraudulent contractors. short supplies of building materials, labor shortages, and the task of rebuilding over 200,000 homes.

We are stepping up to the task. We survived the deluge and our rebuilding our communities.

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