The Politics of Disaster: Katrina, Big Government, and a New Strategy for
by Marvin Olasky
W Publishing Group, 2006
(231 pages, $22.99, hardcover)
reviewed by Anne Hendershott
In the year since Hurricane Katrina blew through the South, more than a dozen books were published to document the disaster—and levy the blame. Most of the books, like Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge and Jed Horne’s Breach of Faith, find fault with the government response. Others, like Michael Eric Dyson’s Come Hell or High Water, blame racism for the plight of the poor, mostly black victims trapped for days in the rising floodwaters.
Rushed to publication, the first books failed to question many of the media mistakes of the early days of the disaster. Still relying heavily on “breaking news stories”—like the false reports of marauding gangs of young black men shooting at rescue helicopters and raping women—other books are compelling but inaccurate.
Written by one of the inspirations for President Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism,” Marvin Olasky, The Politics of Disaster: Katrina, Big Government, and a New Strategy for Future Crisis stands out among the rest because it is the first book to look closely at “what worked” as well as what failed in the days following the storm and to identify the important role faith-based efforts played in the recovery. It is also the first to offer strategies for the future that couple individual responsibility with governmental preparedness.
In addition, it is also the only book that looks closely at the Christian response to the disaster and the ways in which the media portrayed this response. Olasky, the editor of the Christian weekly magazine World and professor of journalism at the University of Texas, charges that the media “could not resist the tendency to depict all Christians as fanatics, describing Katrina as divine retribution.”
He points out that “Google and LexisNexis searches show that such interpretations of Katrina were rare among American Christian leaders.” He notes that most Evangelicals emphasized God’s message to all people—that “God loves to bring good out of bad . . . to bring resurrection from crucifixion,” as Rick Warren, the author of The Purpose-Driven Life, put it.
Still, he points out, the Washington Post could not resist the headline: “Where Most See a Weather System, Others See Divine Retribution” and featured an antiabortion activist who claimed that “God judged New Orleans for the sin of abortion,” and another who “connected the removal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip with the lifting of God’s hand of protection” from the storm.
Olasky praises the military response—“the best results [were] often obtained by entrepreneurial officers who saw immediate problems and decided to act”—and that of many large corporations, noting that “Wal-Mart was able to deliver supplies faster than any governmental organization.”
Olasky is hard not only on New Orleans Mayor Nagin (who was “like a general who misuses his resources, sees his troops desert, and then asks for more of both”) and Governor Blanco (who “fiddled while Katrina approached”), but also on President Bush, who tried to counter criticism by promising “a spending spree that could out-Clinton his predecessor.”
He is especially hard on government bureaucracy. He argues that “the operative National Response Plan of the Department of Homeland Security is unworkable,” and details its failures.
In a chapter entitled “How the Government Needs to Change,” he is particularly critical of the ways in which faith-based initiatives had been undermined long before Katrina by the “Beltway strategy of appeasing liberals by weakening the faith-based bill.” Suggesting that these programs—which contributed much to the people hurt by the hurricane but could have contributed more had the government been less restrictive—should not be forced to change their character or compromise their mission, Olasky argues that the government must “create a level playing field for religious and nonreligious institutions.”
And in a subsequent chapter, “How the Church Needs to Change,” Olasky is critical of the actions of a few “fringe fundamentalists” who “pointed fingers at New Orleans residents, as if those struck were more sinful than others.”
Suggesting that “Christians evangelize most successfully when people come to understand that the prime Christian objective is to add to their lives, not subtract,” he cautions that some churches “will have to start referring to ‘we sinners’ rather than ‘you sinners.’ . . . Some will need to fight the perception and sometimes the reality that they put law before grace, and morality before faith.”
A compassionate Christian, Olasky devotes the entire final chapter to putting the Katrina disaster into perspective by providing a thoughtful discussion of the problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves us. He reminds us that “the road to contentment runs through misery. . . . Biblically, we can be thankful for difficulties that energize us and also be thankful for all the days on which no disaster occurs.”
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Urban Affairs at the King's College in New York City (www.tkc.edu). She is the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education (Transaction, 2008). She and her husband have two grown children and are members of St. Mary's Church in Milford, Connecticut.
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