It's been lost in the shuffle with the turmoil of the financial markets, but Hurricane Ike has been a disaster of epic proportions in western Louisiana and Texas.
This powerful Category 2 hurricane wracked the Texas Gulf Coast on Sept. 14, flattening houses, obliterating entire towns and claiming at least 33 lives. As many as 300 people are still missing.
Ike destroyed 45,000 homes. More than 3 million Texas residents lost electricity, some for more than three weeks. Then Ike turned north, weakened to a tropical storm, but still packed enough punch to leave hundreds of thousands more Americans in the Midwest without power for days in a 200-mile-wide swath from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes.
Then there was Ike's environmental impact. According to an analysis of federal data by The Associated Press, at least a half million gallons of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico and the marshes, bayous and bays of Louisiana and Texas. The winds and massive waves destroyed oil platforms, tossed storage tanks and punctured pipelines. While Hurricane Katrina in 2005 ranked as among the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, with about 9 million gallons of oil spilled, the damage caused by Ike was still significant.
The turmoil on Wall Street and the final weeks of the presidential election are monopolizing the front pages of American newspapers. But even if Ike's aftermath was given as much attention as the aftermath of Katrina, accurate reporting would be nearly impossible. That's because the Federal Emergency Management Agency learned a lesson from Katrina -- keep the media out and control the flow of information.
Broadcast media was not allowed to film people being rescued from rooftops in Texas. They were prohibited from flying over the small towns and beaches destroyed by the storm. It took days for the rest of the nation to learn that a million Houston residents had no running water for three days. Or that no local shelters had been opened during the storm. Or that only two of the region's 14 hospitals reopened within the first two weeks after the storm. It may be New Year's Day before some areas of Texas see removal of the storm debris.
We're not talking about a Third World city seeing conditions like this. This is Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States. And conditions in Galveston, which took a direct hit from Ike, were even worse.
FEMA and other federal officials involved in disaster relief were determined to do a better job -- or at least to appear to do a better job. FEMA received some praise for more efficient coordination with state and local officials and for not being as feckless in its response as it was three years ago in New Orleans. But for the most part, there were still many delays and problems in delivering aid around Texas. A lot of that never reached the press beyond Texas until well after the fact.
Slowly, the stories about the extent of the devastation from Hurricane Ike are filtering into the national media. Once again, we're seeing how little concern has been given to improving the federal government's response to natural disasters. Once again, we're seeing the American Red Cross and other nonprofits stretched to the limit trying to pick up the slack. And now, after Congress signed off on an unprecedented $700 billion bailout of Wall Street, there's going to be even less money available when the next flood or hurricane comes around.
This is the fear that is rising in the midst of the current economic crisis. If the goal of conservatives is to permanently shrink the size of government, you had better hope that you'll never need assistance when disaster strikes -- because you may be waiting a long time.