History’s actors catch a cold

Areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina look like a bomb went off. And so does the aura of invincibility described in 2004 by a senior Bush White House aide to the New York Times: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. . . . We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Well. We’ve been studying, and the levee just burst on the school term.According to a CNN news report, the Department of Homeland Security has conducted more than 440 disaster-preparedness simulations since 9-11. The news clips make good sound bites on local shock news: citizen actors recruited to quiver and bleed like victims.

None, apparently, were asked to behave like the drug addicts with guns in New Orleans who emerged like pus from an infection cored out by a ballpoint pen.

That is the scenario that many observers believe could materialize if the flu virus in Asia, H5N1, sparks a pandemic. So far, the threat of avian flu is generating a big yawn from Congress and the Bush administration.

It took only took 48 hours after a major hurricane for 20 percent of New Orleans’ police force to melt away and for drug addicts—whose supply had been interrupted—to claim the streets with gunfire.
I am not claiming the Democrats have a better idea for dealing with the disintegration of civil society if a major flu pandemic emerges from Asia, but you got to dance with the partner that brung you.

It is time for the Bush White House and the Republican Congress to stand down with the rhetorical wordplay; your “democracy marching forwards,” your “shock and awe campaigns,” your “missions accomplished” ought to be retired.

Tell the American public how you will begin matching resources to the nature of the threats to our national security, including a failed energy policy and fiscal recklessness that has made the nation dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Michael T. Osterholm, with the Department of Homeland Security’s National Center for Food Protection and Defense, wrote in Foreign Affairs last month, “If an influenza pandemic struck today, borders would close, the global economy would shut down, international vaccine supplies and health-care systems would be overwhelmed, and panic would reign.”

We just saw the panic part of it.

No one liked those stories of drug addicts shooting randomly at first responders. Better to focus on relatives found, pets returned, medicines delivered, rebuilding plans drawn up and executed by tough-talking generals.

Hurricane Katrina was a wake-up call to the nation: If bird flu struck today, there would no time to ask questions: Where are the plans for quarantine? Where are the supplies of vaccine? Who and how will we operate critical supply chains necessary for our energy and food needs?

A start in the right direction would be for the Bush White House to mandate the fast-track construction of sufficient capacity to manufacture those drugs that may—and not guaranteed by any means—lessen mortality from bird flu. Now.

In the event of a flu pandemic, state and local government resources would be overwhelmed as they were during Hurricane Katrina.

The large-scale systems we depend on for delivery of essential services, including food and transportation and electricity, and the interstate commerce these rely on can only be protected by federal authority.
We can put aside, for the time being, the fact that even though billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent to bolster homeland security since 9-11, when first responders might have been saved if communication systems worked, still after Hurricane Katrina the federales couldn’t figure out how to make a phone call.

It does not augur well to see history’s actors looking every bit as helpless as Stella, in Streetcar Named Desire, set once in New Orleans by the great American playwright, Tennessee Williams. Still . . . under circumstances like those we face, we’ve passed the point of a dress rehearsal.

A second recommendation is for the federal and state governments to begin stockpiling heroin to become, if the avian flu strikes, supplier of last resort to the nation’s addicts.

Trial by error is a cruel mistress.


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