George Bush and Than Shwe, Katrina and Nargis: A Study in Style
Comparisons are odious. - John Fortescue, De Laudibus Legum Angliae (1471)
It would be unfair to compare the response of Myanmar Junta leader, Than Shwe, to Cyclone Nargis to George Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina. For one thing, the two disasters were separated by thousands of miles. Furthermore, Burma initially rejected all foreign aid whereas Mr. Bush only rejected aid from Cuba.
Of course, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Than knew in advance of the approaching disasters. On May 6, 2008, a spokesman for the Indian Meteorological Department said Burmese agencies had been given 48 hours' notice of the cyclone's advent, including its point of crossing, its severity and all related issues. There was no acknowledgement of the warning from the Myanmar government.
Mr. Bush was told the Sunday before the Monday Katrina struck that the city's flood defenses could fail in such a storm. The National Weather Service issued a special hurricane warning saying most of New Orleans would be uninhabitable for weeks and "water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards." Unlike Mr. Than, Mr. Bush acknowledged these warnings. He said the government was fully prepared to help. He was wrong, of course, but not on purpose.
Monday morning Mr. Bush was again warned about the potential devastation of Katrina and was told the government might lack the capacity to deal with it. He did not let that interfere with the day's planned activities. Mr. Bush talked about immigration issues with the head of the Department of Homeland Security. He then shared a birthday cake photo-op with his old friend, Senator John McCain, and, after learning that the 17th Canal levee in New Orleans had breached, went off to Arizona to promote Medicare Drug benefits. By late afternoon he was at a California senior center where he discussed the Medicare drug benefit. At 8 that night the governor of Louisiana told the president she needed everything Mr. Bush could provide to deal with the emergency. Mr. Bush said nothing. He went to bed.
Tuesday afternoon Mr. Bush joined country singer, Mark Willis, for a photo op, Mr. Bush holding a guitar and the singer smiling at the playful president. Mr. Bush then returned to Texas to finish up his vacation. He let it be known that he would begin work the following day with a task force to coordinate relief efforts.
It took Mr. Than two weeks to meet victims and see the destruction for himself. As soon as Mr. Bush finished his vacation Wednesday, he flew back to Washington, making a detour, however, to fly over New Orleans so he could see for himself how bad things were. A picture was taken of him looking out the airplane window at the devastation below, the sort of picture that could not be published of Mr. Than since he never did that.
As different as the responses of the two leaders to their respective disasters were, there is one sad similarity. Many Burmese will die or permanently suffer the effects of the government's unwillingness to permit foreign aid to enter the country until long after the disaster had struck. By contrast, within days after Katrina struck, FEMA ordered $2.7 billion worth of trailers and mobile homes to house those left homeless using a single page of specifications. Joseph Hagerman, a Federation of American Scientists expert who is helping develop new emergency housing is quoted in the Washington Post as saying: "I can't believe that we bought a billion dollars' worth of product with a 25-line spec. There's not much you can do in 25 lines to protect life safety." He is right. There is now a health catastrophe among the 300,000 people living in those homes.
The problems first surfaced in 2006. Scott Needle, a pediatrician in Bay St. Louis said children living in the trailers were coming in to see him with respiratory complaints that occurred repeatedly. The Sierra Club tested the air in 44 trailers and in 40 of them the concentration of formaldehyde was more than .1 parts per million. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says workers should not be exposed to that level of concentration for more than 15 minutes at a time. Responding to the initial complaints FEMA spokesman, Aaron Walker, said out of 115,000 trailers being used there had then been only 20 complaints and they could easily be resolved by increasing ventilation in the trailers.
In the two years since Mr. Walker spoke, the number of complainants has increased. According to the Post, 17,000 residents of the trailers have joined in a class action lawsuit against the Federal Government and the trailer manufacturers alleging health consequences from living in the trailers including respiratory illnesses and cancer.
Only time will tell if the illnesses affecting the families and the presence of formaldehyde in the trailers furnished by the government is anything more than coincidental. Here is one thing that is definitely coincidental: any similarity between George Bush's response to Katrina and Than Shwe's response to Cyclone Nargis.