Van Zandt: Who's responsible for aftermath?

For decades scientists, geologists, and other titled individuals in and around New Orleans, its adjacent coastal areas, and around the nation have warned that "the water is coming, the water is coming." Two months ago The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and others said, should a city wide disaster befall New Orleans, 130,000 city residents would be without transportation.

So why did Mayor Nagin flee the city and leave 500 to 1000 local buses (transit authority and school buses) to sit unattended and only to be swallowed up by water from breached local levies? All of these buses could have been used for mass evacuation purposes. Assuming Mayor Nagin had 1,000 buses in the local area, with each bus seating 50 people, 50,000 citizens could have been evacuated immediately, had city and state government responded appropriately.

To make a bad situation even worse, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco refused to heed warnings from the federal government in advance of the hurricane, choosing instead to take the matter under consideration.

Taking responsibility is a challenge today. No one wants to accept it but most are quick to ascribe it to others. Cries of racism have arisen from Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
Claims by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and others, blame the hurricane on the President because he has not taken a stronger stand on global warming. (The Gulf of Mexico was about two degrees warmer than normal, and warmer water means stronger storms.

President Bush declined to sign the Kyoto Protocol -- an international, legally binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions world wide, because of its disproportionate demands on developed countries.) But to blame Mr. Bush for these stronger storms is being argued by scientists on both sides of the debate. And there is still plenty of responsibility to go around.

As an American, I was so proud to see the many first responders, especially the highly visible U.S. Coast Guard, as they plucked victims from rooftops in the drowning city they call "the Big Easy." And, equally, I was saddened by those who have put their own political agendas ahead of the needs of the people on the Gulf Coast. The finger pointing that is going around, with many politicians using the plight of the affected people to further their own political aspirations and agendas, without really caring for the evacuees, is shameful. It causes us both personal sadness and international embarrassment.

And, bipartisanship seems to be a lost term, with Democrats and Republicans viewing every issue through blue or red colored glasses-not the red, white and blue glasses this unprecedented situation calls for.

One volunteer in New Orleans e-mailed me to say that celebrities are, in fact, hurting the relief efforts. She wrote that every time a television or film celebrity walks in, either they have their own camera crews rolling or the media rushes to take their pictures -- causing delays in meeting the urgent needs of the victims. Celebrities, stay home and send money instead, or come without your personal camera crews and refuse all media attention. Get your shots, roll up your sleeves, and try to stay out of the water.

The first response by the New Orleans Police Department was a disaster. We've witnessed their chief extolling the virtues of his department, at least the officers that stayed to do their job and didn't loot or simply run to the hills. I remember when the FBI had emergency relocation plans for every FBI office in the country. In the event of a natural disaster or nuclear war, we were to go to a predetermined alternate site and continue the business of government. Many agents wondered if any of us would be left alive even to relocate. We wondered who would stay and who would head to Canada with their families.

In the case of New Orleans, the FBI agents and other personnel from almost every federal agency stayed. Much has been made of the many other challenges faced by the New Orleans Police Department. Undermanned by about one-third, it has an ongoing reputation for corruption, and those officers who do their duty were faced in even pre-flood times with one of the more violent and crime-ridden locations to police in the entire nation.

After Hurricane Katrina, the first response and evacuation were the responsibility of local and state government. Because of poor planning-at all levels of government-this natural disaster has turned into one of unbelievable human dimensions. Society, human services, and government have experienced a total breakdown.

And herein lies the problem. We have been conditioned to expect and rely on government to meet our needs -- expectations that local, state, and federal government in the affected area did not, could not, meet.  Across this country communities are contributing time and money to assist the victims of this hurricane. But the underlying problems that made our fellow citizens victims still exist. It is not their skin color, though most who were unable to flee or who failed to flee the affected areas were black. No, lack of education, attendant poverty, and the breakdown of social order, first and foremost at the family level, make this natural disaster into a personal disaster that will ultimately affect millions of Americans.

New Orleans' mayor says that over one-third of adults living in the city are illiterate. Could this figure, coupled with a single parent birth rate that is half again the national average, a population that has seventy five percent living below the poverty level, and ongoing corruption of all sorts at all levels of government suggest why there has been shooting, looting, arson, and other terrible crimes in a time of extraordinary need?
Is racism the problem as we're told by those who look only for their own gain in this tragedy? Is this a political problem that a new democratic president could easily solve? Was the response on all levels of government criminally intentional, irresponsible, or just missing on all levels? The ultimate bill for this disaster will, of course be shouldered by the American public, a bill that may run $2,000 for every household in this country.

In the United States it is almost a crime to be poor, and to be poor and uneducated means you must rely on government to provide for your needs. And when you begin to rely on government, you begin to court disaster.

In this country we need to demand better education for all of our children and better living conditions for all of our people. This will create a better society for all of us, no matter our race, or the size of our houses, cars, or bank accounts.

For those who want to make this tragedy a black vs. white issue, or Democrat vs. Republican issue, don't. Stop and care for the children and the families who have lost so much. Don't focus on what you have to gain politically and personally. This is not the time to run for president; it's the time to run for a bottle of water to give to someone who might otherwise die of dehydration.

The responsibility to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina rests on all of our collective shoulders. Until we demand corruption-free government, universally good education, job training, and housing in which any of us would be willing to live; until we meet the needs of every child and every adult who has been affected by this disaster; and until we truly become a nation for the people, we will all be at fault, and all responsible. All of us.     

Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed , a Website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and was the leader of the analytical team tasked with identifying the "Unabomber."