More heartbreak and outrage over the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Plus: Readers respond to "Christopher Hitchens' Last Battle," by Juan Cole.

Published September 8, 2005 8:00AM (EDT)

[Read Salon's full coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Previous letters can be read here.]

Since last Monday (Aug. 29), I have read and listened to the official talk about not laying blame; they've said that the criticisms are partisan and ask, "Who could have known?" What I haven't heard is someone mention the word "accountability." When you are given a job, in the general course of affairs, you are expected to do it. If you don't, you are responsible and accountable for your actions. Why didn't Michael Chertoff know that people were in the Convention Center? CNN knew, MSNBC knew, even Fox News knew. Don't they have televisions at FEMA? Not one "I'm sorry, I made a mistake"; not one "heads will roll." We have become a country that moves from one disaster to another because we keep the same people around who created the problem in the first place. Where is the accountability?

-- Denise Alexander

Bad as Katrina was, the bigger disaster is the flooding. What if al-Qaida had blasted the floodwalls? Instead of a natural disaster, where people had days of warning to flee, you would have had an entire city underwater due to terrorism. Why didn't Homeland Security, of which FEMA is part, have a plan? In four years, Homeland Security has taken away countless nail clippers from airline travelers, but it still has failed New Orleans.

-- David Romm

Bush supporters have made the claim that the real problem with disaster response rests with state and local officials. But the Department of Homeland Security's National Response Plan (NRP), released in January 2005, gives the president full authority over disaster response -- if he wants it.

The NRP acknowledges that response to disasters will typically occur at the lowest level possible, state, tribal and local. But it also distinguishes between smaller incidents and "Incidents of National Significance." These include "high-impact, low-probability incidents, including natural disasters and terrorist attacks that result in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the population, infrastructure, environment, economy, national morale, and/or government functions."

In the event of an incident of national significance, the president can authorize the head of Homeland Security to "assume incident management responsibilities."

The plan specifically says, "If the president determines that an emergency exists where the primary responsibility for response rests with the Government of the United States ... the president may unilaterally direct the provision of assistance under the act, and will, if practicable, consult with the governor of the state."

So it doesn't make any sense for Bush apologists to say that the real problem was with the state and local response. At any time Bush could have authorized DHS to take over command of the response. But he didn't. With a massive storm threatening to virtually wipe a major American city off the map, he remained on vacation. If losing New Orleans and 200 miles of Gulf Coast is not an "incident of national significance," then what would be?

-- Jim Holman

Like most Americans, I watched in horror. I also felt helpless, guilty and ashamed at what I saw. By Wednesday, I knew - and didn't the president know? -- that this was the worst disaster in American history. I also knew that every possible resource should be summoned immediately, if not sooner.

I wanted to help. My first call was to SORT (Special Operations Response Team), because it is primarily a medical team based in my hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C. I was told that the SORT team had already been deployed and I could not help, that I would need six months of special training. I argued, "But I am a surgeon, and those people need all the help they can get now." They suggested I call the Red Cross.

I called the Red Cross and told them that I would do anything that would help. They said 50 Winston-Salem volunteers had already been sent and that at least another 50 had already expressed a desire to go. Their response was totally unbelievable -- they told me the next training wasn't until Sept. 7. I said that issues of credentialing and red tape have to be thrown out in this case, that those people need our help and they need it now. I argued and pleaded with officials; I had travel arrangements made! When I was finally able to reach the regional director of the Red Cross in Raleigh, I was informed that the Red Cross is not involved in medical care and that I should call FEMA. I never got through to FEMA, though I tried a hundred times through a variety of numbers. I spent two days on the phone.

Finally I called the office of my senator, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. I asked if his office could find out where I could be of help and how I would go about it. I was given a telephone number for an emergency response group in Washington. I never got through to them. And I never heard back from FEMA.

I am very ashamed that Americans could suffer and die on American soil while physicians trying to get to them were told to stay home. Along with many of my colleagues in the medical profession across the nation, I was told over and over again to stay home. At a time of national disaster, with so many lives at stake, how is it possible that medical professionals were rebuffed due to credentialing issues, red tape, and poor communication issues from several different emergency response groups? I am amazed, I am angry, and I am sad.

The red-tape response the medical community received should make all of us ask for answers. How many people have died because they would not let us go? Yes, we need to fix the levees and rebuild New Orleans. But more importantly we need to look each other in the eye and ask, "Where did we go wrong?"

-- Jamie Koufman

I live in Meridian, Miss., about 160 miles inland from the Gulf Coast. My town was hit with Category 1 hurricane winds. Hundreds of homes have either been destroyed or severely damaged, primarily by downed trees and wind damage.

We haven't seen anything that looks like FEMA or federal relief. If it weren't for the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the local churches, many of the residents of Lauderdale, Clarke and Jasper counties might still be without aid of any kind.

Katrina made a much bigger impact inland in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama than many Americans realize. Lucky for us here in Mississippi, we learned a long time ago about compassion, making do, and taking care of our own. It looks like we are pretty much all we've got.

-- Meriden Kotelec

What good is having a federal government if it is so slow to react to the peril of an entire region?

Daughter of the South that I am, I have always believed it was a good thing that the Confederacy lost its war. Slavery was and is wrong, will always be wrong, and no amount of romanticism or revisionist history will ever make it even a little bit right.

But I looked at the news this past week, and I wondered: What good is a federal government that is so slow to react to a threat to the lives of such a large segment of its citizenry? I wondered about the fact that, to much of the rest of the United States, the South is a joke, an afterthought, a scapegoat. Exactly what is the purpose of this vaunted Union?

I find it hard to imagine that a major city outside the Southeast would be allowed to go for days and days and days after such a disaster. If a hurricane headed for New York City, do you think the reaction would be so slow? When a major earthquake hit Los Angeles in the 1990s, people were not left to fend for themselves for days and days, living in filth and squalor. L.A. has seen its share of riots and looters, but no one has ever suggested that simply abandoning the city and bulldozing the site was a solution to anything. Yet that suggestion has been made, apparently seriously, by at least one member of Congress in reference to New Orleans.

Even "wealthy" (as in, had a car and gas so they could leave before the storm hit) New Orleanians are suffering, with everything they have worked for all their lives under or awash in filthy water, and no real idea when they can even assess the damage. Many of the "wealthy" don't have a home to go back to, a job to go back to, a bank account at a bank that is above water, or a clue what they are going to do when they run out of cash or the relatives get sick of them. Entire small towns in Mississippi are missing, almost without comment. Alabama's Gulf Coast is a miserable mess.

My guess is that many of those people sent good wishes, and money, and firefighters, and assistance to people suffering in New York, and Los Angeles, and Oklahoma City. I know for a fact they've been paying federal taxes just like the rest of us, on the notion that when they needed the federal government, when they needed the rest of us, we'd be there for them. They paid taxes on the notion that if we can send pork barrels here and there, we can pay for legitimate needs like FEMA and flood control.

I make no secret of my disapproval of the current administration in Washington. They've bungled this job, just as they have bungled a lot of things. That almost goes without saying.

But it's not just the administration. I think I'm through being a good sport about people making fun of my regional accent, of jokes about the South and Southerners told by people who think ethnic jokes (of any other sort) are in bad taste. Quit using the South to reassure yourselves, America, and look into the mirror: Americans are suffering because, in the minds of too many, New Orleans was a play-city, a joke town, that didn't need the money to pay for the maintenance of real levees.

One alleged friend of mine actually suggested that the Gulf Coast folks deserved the treatment they've gotten, since they "voted for Bush." I was speechless.

Meanwhile, every expatriate Southerner I talk with is in shock and pain, watching the TV, listening to the news. And unbelievably, we're still hearing the hick jokes.

Last I heard, this was one nation. I'm sick. I'm angry. Don't you dare make fun of the way we talk.

-- Ruth Adar

[Read "Christopher Hitchens' Last Stand," by Juan Cole.]

It's with great relief that I read Dr. Cole's Salon essay responding to Hitchens' 10 points of illogic about Iraq. (Note that Cole reads Arabic. Does Hitchens?)

How long has it taken for insightful voices to be found that can handle the complicated response necessary to counteract the overintellectualized and hyper-patriotic assertions of post-9/11 policy? How long? Too long.

Thanks to Salon...

-- Kamalesh Thakker

How refreshing to read the Cole article and find that the tentacles of the Bush administration's billionaires club have not sucked the lifeblood out of academia. Looking forward, I feel relief.

Academics across our nation will preserve the sad lessons of the Bush era, as they have with other notorious historical characters. It's obvious from reading Cole's work that it will take years (perhaps a generation) for democracy to recover from the misdeeds of this administration. However, the antidote for these poisonous years is already at hand.

The lectures and free-thinking environment of our university system have already begun to clarify our vision and strengthen the body politic -- especially those bodies outside of the billionaires club. The Bush era will come to an end as our sons and daughters return from harm's way and gather their generation of peers in our universities. Thanks to educators like Cole they will discuss and react to the folly of this administration.

-- Jo Doecke

Prof. Cole's article thoroughly and convincingly demolishes virtually all the arguments put forward by Iraq war supporters. However, I do not think he adequately addresses the issue of legality.

Many liberals in America supported U.S. intervention in Kosovo and war against Serbia (although perhaps not many on the true left), but that war was no more legal than the Iraq war, according to the definition set forth. Many would argue that illegality did not make the Kosovo war a mistake, since the United States had NATO support, and NATO could not just stand by while the situation deteriorated. However, it does point to the fact that few centrist Americans actually do believe that war needs to be legal, so criticism of the Iraq war on that basis is itself somewhat disingenuous.

-- Charles Cho

This is an excellent rebuttal to Hitchens' phenomenal deceit. But why the continued demonizing of Israel as some sort of evil empire, to be compared to Saddam-era Iraq? I'm appalled at the current vogue of amnesia regarding Jewish suffering, and the Israeli desire just to exist.

Even now, after the withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas joyfully attributes that action to their violent persistence, and promises more of the same until there is no Israel to condemn anymore. Answer me this, Dr. Cole: Does Israel have the right to exist, or not? And if it does, is it not still under threat of obliteration, as it has been for the last 57 years? And if it is still besieged by that threat, what is it to do about it?

-- Arnie Roman

Thank you to Juan Cole for his pedantic article, particularly for guiding the reader through various types of fallacies. I know not all of Salon's readers had the benefit of my community college education: My required critical thinking course taught me all about "post hoc ergo propter hoc." I cannot imagine how lost other readers would have been in the morass of Hitchens' rhetoric without Cole's careful guidance.

-- Gautham Thomas

I've seen Hitchens appear on the news channel pundit shows. Playwright John Osborne would recognize him immediately as a very old version of Jimmy Porter from his play, "Look Back in Anger." Just as young Jimmy would rant to show the world he was there, Hitchens seems terrified that the world will think he's dead if he doesn't make disturbances. He's begun to suffer from an inability to think and speak precisely. Jimmy Porter's bombast was poetic. Hitchens is just an old guy who spits and stutters when he rants.

-- Ed Turnbull

By Salon Staff

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