Our View: The lessons from Katrina

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Hurricane Katrina is a heart-wrenching natural disaster unlike anything most of us has ever seen. It deserves our immediate attention both in terms of giving to the relief effort and to learning the lessons it has for us.

In the days since the hurricane, calls to the newspaper from businesses and individuals wanting to help have been constant. Business owners are selling items in their stores and donating all proceeds to the relief effort. Restaurants have arranged special meals and asked their patrons to pay for them by making checks out directly to relief agencies. A local woman is spearheading a drive to secure housing and frequent-flier miles for those who have been displaced.

Local nurses, firefighters and emergency personnel are among the volunteers working -- at significant personal risk -- at relief sites along the Gulf Coast.

It is heart-warming to see such strong local response to this tragedy 1,500 miles to the southeast. Of course, it is virtually impossible to see the devastating images from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and not be moved to action. For those who have not already done so, please consider giving to the relief effort. Donate to the Red Cross at www.redcross.org or by calling 1-800-HELP-NOW. There are countless other ways to contribute, many listed in this newspaper.

Such contributions have poured in from around the country -- the Red Cross reported $200 million in donations in the first four days after the hurricane, an average of $50 million per day. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that Americans had contributed $287 million to relief efforts as of Friday. Such a pace of giving is unprecedented. By comparison, in the first 10 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, contributions totaled $239 million.

Yet, despite all of the giving, there clearly was a disconnect between donations and actual aid on the ground. The images in the first three days following the hurricane will be hard to shake. Thousands of people -- most of them poor, most of them black, all of them sick, hungry, thirsty and desperate -- were pleading for someone, anyone to help them. We could only stare in bewilderment and ask, "where was the aid?"

Worse were the images of looters and angry mobs resorting to violence. That a major portion of the relief effort is the use of National Guard troops to impose martial law is a sad commentary.

The lack of an initial response makes it rather evident that no one was prepared for an event of Katrina's magnitude. Local officials weren't prepared. State officials weren't prepared. National officials weren't prepared. Ironically, no city should have been better prepared than New Orleans. For centuries, man has been using a system of levees to redirect the Mississippi, create a massive lake and keep a below-sea level city above water. And for centuries, experts have been warning that such tinkering with Mother Nature would have disastrous consequences.

As Katrina proves, the poor, sick and elderly -- populations that are in abundance along the Gulf Coast -- are least equipped to escape a hurricane. Thus, the plan for Katrina -- telling residents to evacuate -- left the region's most vulnerable populations behind to suffer the ravages of the storm. That's simply not acceptable.

Katrina is a reminder that we must consider the worst disaster scenarios and prepare for them at every level -- local, state and national. We must be prepared to help protect everyone, not just the healthy and wealthy. Above all, we must make sure we have a plan to get aid to victims within hours -- not days -- of disaster.

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