America humbled


Los Angeles Times

September 4, 2005

PRESIDENT BUSH MADE LANDFALL on the Gulf Coast on Friday, four days after Hurricane Katrina. If the visit was designed to quell criticism of the administration's lethargic reaction to the catastrophe, it came too late: By now it is clear that the federal government's initial response, which has improved markedly in the last few days, fell somewhere between the criminally negligent and the pathetically feeble. Even the president acknowledged that it was unacceptable.

But the debate over what the government should have done is less important than what it should do now. In the weeks and months to come, the most pressing issue facing federal, state and local authorities will be what to do with those displaced by the hurricane. Numbering at least 150,000 so far, some are staying in shelters as far away as Illinois.

The scenes of devastation and civil unrest in New Orleans have made Katrina and the ensuing floods more reminiscent of Third World disasters than anything we would expect to see on U.S. soil.

But nothing will reinforce the surreal foreignness of this calamity as much as the novelty of American refugees having to settle, at least temporarily, in new communities. They aren't technically refugees, of course, since no national borders will be crossed. The international legal term for those fleeing Katrina and its aftermath is IDPs, for "internally displaced persons," a staple of underdeveloped and war-torn nations unable to control their whole territories. These are humbling times for America.

The thousands of suddenly homeless men, women and children in the wake of Hurricane Katrina have the same needs as refugees from governmentsponsored murder in Darfur or the tsunami in Indonesia. Ironically, in some ways the U.S. government would have a better handle on how to deal with those fleeing from Katrina (in conjunction with multilateral aid organizations) had it struck a poor nation. We have no tradition of coping with internal refugees.

The United States Agency for International Development has experience in responding to Third World disasters and in helping refugees, and it is being deployed to help in this mission. The Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency also should set aside American pride and hasten to accept foreign offers of assistance that could add value to the relief operations.

That probably does not include offers from Sri Lanka, still recovering from last year's tsunami. But as a general principle, while the richest nation on Earth does not need to ask for assistance, it can and should accept it. "We are all part of the same community," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Private, non-governmental organizations such as the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children and Refugees International also may be in the improbable position of being able to offer needed expertise in this American crisis.

With so many hurricane victims in immediate need of food, clothing, shelter and medical care, it is clear that we can't simply put them all in sports stadiums. Nor can we count on the generosity of volunteers, whose offers of temporary housing are sincere but not nearly plentiful enough to meet the need.

In a place like Sudan, the solution would be straightforward: They would go to refugee camps: fenced-off outdoor encampments with tents and other rudimentary shelter patrolled by armed guards. That is unlikely to happen in the United States, nor should it. Here, they eventually will be housed in community centers, churches, schools — any public space with room to hold them or their temporary mobile homes.

Making that happen is a massive logistical undertaking, and the government is off to a shaky start. Private groups trying to get aid to the people who need it complain that FEMA is stretched far too thin, creating a chaotic situation.

Donations are pouring in to groups such as the Red Cross, but putting it to work in the best places is proving a serious challenge.

Congress late last week rushed to approve — by voice vote in both chambers — a $10.5-billion down payment for the federal relief effort, and FEMA can start sharing these funds with all the religious, civic and community groups in cities in the vicinity of the storm's wake that are willing and able to take in displaced people. After Hurricane Charley, which blasted southern Florida in August 2004, the state of Florida and FEMA swiftly formed a joint long-term recovery working group that is still in operation. It continues to oversee temporary housing, resettlement and repairs, among other things, for all of the victims of Florida's multiple severe storms in 2004. Of the 17,000 Florida evacuees lodged last year in mobile homes, just under 8,000 are still in them.

In Mississippi and Louisiana, there are far larger numbers of homeless, a high proportion of them very poor. But handling large numbers of displaced people should come naturally to a Department of Homeland Security (which houses FEMA, along with other agencies) created to respond to large-scale terrorist attacks. Sadly, this is unlikely to be the last time the United States has to cope with an internally displaced population.

Katrina's refugees will have to be housed farther from home than Florida's evacuees. Washington will need to devise efficient means of delivering long-term government aid, including Medicaid and welfare payments. Those who can work need to connect with available jobs. Families need to be kept intact.

This catastrophe is intensely personal, but its solution is national and even international. Among the offers for help from abroad, received the same day as he visited the Gulf Coast, was a letter to President Bush from Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. If his agency can help, he wrote, "we stand ready to do our part." It was a generous gesture that drives home the novel challenge facing Washington — and offers a perspective of the calamity that should prove at least as valuable to Bush as any he acquired on the ground.