Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


"This is Our Tsunami"

Before I get into this post, I’d like to say I have a great deal of sympathy for the individuals whose lives, but nothing else, have been saved. However, I find the comparisons to the Indian ocean tsunami to be irresponsible and wrong.

Sample quote:

Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway said the storm’s damage was overwhelming, the Biloxi Sun-Herald said Tuesday. “This is our tsunami,” Holloway said…

No, it is not.

There are a number of important differences:

  1. There was substantial warning of Katrina, and a chance to evacuate. There was no formal warning system in place for the Indian Ocean tsunami.
  2. A hurricane this big was predictable, and predicted. The Superdome was (nominally) built to handle 200 mph winds and 35 feet of flooding.
  3. The countries hit by the tsunami were generally poor, and couldn’t spend a lot on disaster planning, whereas New Orleans and Louisiana made spending choices in their budgets not to.

7 comments on ""This is Our Tsunami""

  • Silver_h says:

    You’re totally right !!! I’m glad to read this message !!!

  • A colleague saw this comment a few days ago, and was similarly incensed. I’m not so sure. For one, comparing human suffering is always a grizzly and uncertain area. It is certainly true that the body counts are not at all comparable, and the utter devastation wrought by the tsunami was far worse. But if one uses the relative benchmark of normalacy, then the mayor may be justified in comparing how drastically the lives of his constituents changed.
    As for your distinctions:
    I am revolted at the sheer number of people taking the blame-the-victim tack, and am frankly surprised to see you joining their ranks, Adam. The people who chose not to evacuate don’t really have all that great a reason to trust the gov’t in the first place. There were no evacuation plans for individuals lacking a personal vehicle. None. The hurricane struck on the 29th, while socsec, unemployment and welfare checks arrive on the first. How many people have enough cash to fill a tank even if they did have cars? If all their property is vulnerable, it’s a lot harder to walk away.
    Yes, the city, state and federal government should have planned better. One of the poorest cities in the country, in one of the poorest states, should have devoted a larger portion of its budget to protect its citizens. Bigger and better government programs should have been enacted. But the absence of a sprinkler system doesn’t diminish the suffering of the victims of the fire.
    Finally, plenty of economists, of both professional and armchair persuasion, are noting that perhaps we should not subsidize people engaging in risky behavior by rebuiulding for them. That’s fair enough, I suppose, but economists need to include the opportunity cost in their calculations. If there were no Big Easy (or San Francisco on a fault line, or New York around high profile terrorist targets, or…) would that make us better off today?

  • I think I was unfair to Adam above–he does not imply that the victims were at fault for not evacuating, but rather the social planners in which the residents of New Orleans placed their trust failed them. I must have confused Adam with FEMA director Michael Brown ( I apologize for that, and I believe Adam shares my opinion on Mr. Brown.
    I do, however, still believe that it is not a comletely unfair exageration for a NO resident to compare their current tragedy with the area hit by the tsunami.

  • Hold on to your hats. The real wash is yet to come…

  • Iang says:

    In the sense of “there but for the grace of God go I” the comparison to the tsunami of 8 months ago is fair and inevitable. But, it is always only approximate, and drawing lessons from the comparison isn’t that helpful due to the disparate nature of the disasters.
    Better to consider Florida in 2004, or Grand Bahama, flooded twice in the last 10 years, or Anguilla in 2000, or … The lessons are well known and simple: Build strong homes, and if flooding is expected, build them high.
    This is not hard. Many East Coast (US) beach homes are up on frameworks 3 metres above the ground. That’s to cover the swell; the buildings don’t look that strong to me, but I’m told they are; use of strong wooden beams gives flex which can help.
    Local councils can do their bit by setting standards, what are the standards for building in New Orleans? I don’t know where Dade County is, but I know its standards are used in the Caribbean because they are considered good for hurricanes.

  • beri says:

    thank you, Allen, for pointing out that no assistance was offered by the city or state for evacuating those who didn’t have cars. YOu may have noticed that most of those left behind are black (and poor–N.O. is one of the poorest cities in a poor state).
    Now they are being told that they can leave the sports arena and “take care of themselves.”
    As for blaming the victim–those of us who have lived charmed lives of physical health, mental health and good jobs, are often seized by a kind of primitive fear that the disasters which afflict others were really lightning bolts aimed at us, which missed. This creates a reflexive anger, lest someone realize taht WE were supposed to be the ones who finally felt the foot of fate on our necks.
    AS to “this is the worst disaster ever,” it merely shows how short our memories are. In 1900, Galveston Texas was wiped off teh map by a storm. The solution to rebuilding at that time? Build a big sea wall, fill in the remains of the city and build a new city on top of the old one.
    And that’s what they did.

  • Iang says:

    There’s a big difference between ‘blaming the victim’ and explaining how the victim is always going to be the victim. Blame aside, the fact remains that the victims in these sorts of disasters are always likely to be the poor who cannot a) understand the need, b) do not believe what the do-gooders tell them, and c) can’t afford to move anyway.
    This pattern is repeated across all the natural disasters across the world. It’s not new, although it may be unfamiliar to those with parochial TV understanding of the world. It’s a pattern that is repeated yearly as close as the Caribbean when a hurricane sweeps down the chain and kills hundreds on one island and nobody on the next.
    What to do about it is a complete other question. But if we don’t know what the real underlying issue is, we’ll almost certainly do more damage than good.

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