Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Tomgram: Rosner and Markowitz, 9/11 as the First Katrina Moment

Normally, when we consider the events of September 11, 2001, we don't think of them as a "Katrina moment," but public-health specialists David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, authors of the just published Are We Ready? Public Health Since 9/11, know better. Amid Bush administration ineptitude and incompetence before -- and on -- that day, there was at least one shining story of on-the-spot, efficient government: the public-health system in New York City. Though few noticed (until Katrina arrived four years later), the administration started to undermine and sabotage that system almost immediately. It's a sorry tale that not only points toward New Orleans, 2005, but toward a deeper pathology in this country. Without a terrorist in sight, the infrastructure that made this into a can-do nation has been given the sort of once-over that certain terrorist organizations might indeed admire.

Just last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a "D" for "its overall infrastructure conditions, estimating that it would take $1.6 trillion over five years to fix the problem." The "problem," put bluntly, is that the country's basic operating systems are eroding fast and this administration, by all evidence, couldn't care less. So when, on this fifth anniversary week, we look back on the horrendous attacks of 9/11, we should think of what the supposedly national-security consciousness Bush administration has really done to undermine not only the safety, but possibly the long-term viability of this can-do country. Maybe it's time that we gave the Republicans of Bush's Washington the name they actually deserve -- the Republicants. Tom

9/11: Katrina Started at Ground Zero

By David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz

Nothing else worked that day. The President was flying haplessly around the country looking distinctly unpresidential; the Vice President was in a bunkered panic. The military couldn't scramble armed jets and anything else that could go wrong did. But one thing worked, and it worked splendidly -- the New York City, as well as federal, public-health system.

While the World Trade Center was burning fiercely and about to become a vast cloud of toxic smoke and ash, public health officials were already mobilizing. Within hours, hospitals had readied themselves to receive the injured; hundreds of ambulances were lined up along the West Side Highway awaiting word to race to the scene; the city's public health department had opened its headquarters to receive hundreds of people stricken by smoke inhalation, heart attacks, or just pure terror; the Department of Health had already begun providing gas masks and other protective equipment to doctors, evacuation personnel, and first responders of all sorts. From bandages and surgical tools to antibiotics and radiation-detection equipment, the federal Centers for Disease Control readied immense plane-loads of emergency supplies, ferrying them up to New York's LaGuardia Airport aboard some of the few planes allowed to fly in the days after September 11th.

Despite the general panic and the staggering levels of destruction, even seemingly inconsequential or long-range potential health problems were attended to: Restaurants were broken into to empty thousands of pounds of rotting food from electricity-less refrigerators, counters tops, and refrigeration rooms; vermin infestations were averted; puddles were treated to stop mosquitoes from breeding so that West Nile virus would not affect the thousands of police, fire, and other search-and-rescue personnel working at Ground Zero.

In the face of a great and unexpected catastrophe, this is the way it was supposed to be -- and (for those who care to be nostalgic) after 5 years of the Bush administration's Global War on Terror, not the way it's ever likely to be again. One of the great ironies of 9/11 will pass unnoticed in the various memorials and remembrances now descending upon us: In the wake of the attacks, as the Bush administration claimed it was gearing up to protect us against any further such moments by pouring money into the Pentagon and the new Department of Homeland Security, its officials were also reorienting, privatizing, militarizing, and beginning to functionally dismantle the very public health system that made the catastrophe of 9/11 so much less disastrous than it might have been.

Click here to read more of this dispatch.

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