I am deeply disturbed by the images coming out of the USA this week.
The sheer despair and suffering of the people involved, to which my thoughts go out, are certainly the main point but not what makes me worrisome. Worrying are the tales of systemic failure this tells:

  • The failure to get help into the area, days after disaster.
  • The way hardly any action was taken before disaster struck. (The evacuation of New Orleans seems to have been announced only, but not facilitated, leaving people to fend for themselves. Other areas that are heavily hit because the hurricane changed course, which they often do, were not evacuated.)
  • The way the government and initially the US press seemed preoccupied with looters more (shoot to kill orders etc.) than rescueing people.
  • The way the US President talked about rebuilding, getting oil-refineries to work again, listing stuff that was being shipped into the area as if it were groceries, without providing any human comfort, empathy or indication thereof.
  • The way US Government has not requested, and in some instances refused, international offers of help, although offers abound. (Meanwhile the press harrasses UN officials why the international community isn’t doing more, to which everytime the answer is that the US Government must ask and allow itself to be helped.)
  • The way different levels of government seem to be total strangers to each other. (The New Orleans Mayor highly emotional and swearing at the federal government on the airwaves. FEMA stated to be unaware there were thousands of people sheltering in the sportsdome, after days of televised reporting of that fact.)
  • The way local offers of help, by private aviators, by private helicopter companies, general citizens, etc, are turned down by authorities. The Red Cross being forbidden to enter the area.
  • The way how being safe seems to correlate with whether you’re poor or not.
  • The way a government provided ‘safe shelter’ such as the sportsdome turns into a hell with people being raped, killed, running out of sustenance and spiralling down into despair.

    I know from personal experience in my hometown that when disaster strikes that general confusion, disorder, anger, and fear are to be expected and unpreventable, that communication and other infrastructure breaks down initially. It is the way people respond to that that is the most telling. Disasters can strengthen well functioning communities, by providing common cause, and generating feelings of deep solidarity. We saw that here, when our city was in flames in 2000. People and authorities alike started doing a myriad of little things that helped work towards dealing with a situation none could face alone.

    In contrast the impression I get from US authorities is that they seem to think that they are the only ones that could and should deal with it, even though mistakes are made, refusing to build on the feelings of solidarity from their own citizens and the international community. As if they themselves are not part of the community but outside it, supposedly guarding it, the archetype of the benevolent despot. Every toddler goes through a phase where it refuses help by saying “I can do that alone”. I have been watching a lot of uniformed and pin-striped toddlers this week on tv, and it is reminiscent of how the US Government succeeded in turning the world’s outpouring of sympathy and help after 9/11 into alienation, irritation and down-right anger in mere months. Except this time they’re doing it to their own citizens.
    In my KM experience the aftermath of the hurricane so obviously runs contrary to everything I know and have experienced concerning communities, that I don’t know where to begin how to list and explain them rationally or list the symptoms and examples of it from the past week. The current chaos and suffering are not entirely the consequence of natural disaster, but the telling and horrific result of systemic weakening of community and societal structures. Rot at the core spreads outwards. In the past days we have seen how human capital has been carelessly squandered in the US, apparantly for years already.

    I am in no position to judge the US people (even if it were possible to do that in sweeping generalization) and the leadership they choose for themselves, but I am in a position to look at a situation from my professional experience, which is what I try to do here.
    Of course there are also much more positive examples to be found, of acts of individuals that show humanity in the face of disaster. Quite a number of Tsunami relief effort alumni among them, as far as on-line responsiveness is concerned. Thing is, in our societies and communities we build structures and governments for that purpose as well. These structures have failed here, and in instances appear to have made matters worse, much worse.

    Meanwhile US blogs are starting to call the flooded regions Lake George, which seems to be the proper caption for this systemic failure of community. The buck ultimately stops there. Or at least it should. Those who’ve been calling George Bush ‘American Nero’ in the past days on their blogs seem to think it won’t.