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After the Deluge

It is too early to assess the full scope of Hurricane Katrina, much less its larger meaning. It will be months before we have a clear sense of the disaster’s toll on the national economy, and years before we know if New Orleans can be revived. Even counting the dead will take weeks.

What does seem certain is that America has suffered a blow unlike any we ever have known. It’s natural that our grief and shock are mixed with anger. Amid the rage, though, it’s well to remember that we don’t yet know what happened. Until we do, we can only guess at what needs fixing and who’s to blame.

How many died in the fury of the storm, how many in the flood that followed, how many while waiting for rescue in the chaotic aftermath? That tally is months away, perhaps longer. How many of the deaths could and should have been avoided by better preparation beforehand or more focused action as the storm hit? How many were killed by the cruelty of race or class? How will our nation respond once the facts are known? Will we become a stronger, more united, more generous people, or will we sink into greater suspicion and recrimination? Those answers could be a generation away.

It is not too early, however, to begin assessing the events and examining what can be known of the most obvious failures — particularly in the appallingly inadequate first response of federal, state and local leaders and emergency officials. The entire world watched the calamity unfold live on television. Just about everyone, from the angriest survivors on up to the president himself, now understands that if CNN could get its cameras into New Orleans in a matter of hours, the National Guard might have gotten in there with water and emergency supplies in something less than three days.

It’s clear, too, that the delay in the authorities’ response had to do with more than merely nature’s unpredictability or logistical difficulties, as some top federal emergency officials have tried to suggest. The magnitude of the storm had been known days in advance. The vulnerability of New Orleans — including its levees — had been discussed openly for years. There was no need to be surprised. And even in the face of surprise, decent leadership could have managed, with imagination and a spirit of improvisation, to initiate a visible first response, impose order and instill hope before the despair took over. Think of the dramatic international response to the Turkish earthquakes of 1999. Think of September 11.

These are not partisan criticisms. There will be blame enough to share among the federal, state and local governments as the answers emerge. If the larger burden of responsibility seems likely to fall on the federal government, that is first and foremost because its resources dwarf those of the other authorities. That much is clear to Republicans and Democrats alike this week. Only the most diehard administration loyalists persist in averting their eyes.

The eyes of the world are fixed now on America’s agony and shame. Our nation needs to begin a process of accounting that is — and is seen to be — credible, independent and unafraid to ask hard questions. The various investigations now being launched by the White House and Congress are important, but they cannot take the place of an independent, bipartisan commission along the lines of the 9/11 Commission. When the answers do come, they must have sufficient credibility to unite us rather than divide us all over again.

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