The tragedy at St. Rita's nursing home in the hamlet of Violet, just east of New Orleans, calls up eerie echoes of Pompeii, where the volcano Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., trapping the city's residents in their last human poses.
Water, not fire, trapped 34 men and women at St. Rita's, and the pitiful evidence they left behind tell a desperate story of the will to survive. The accounts of the authorities who discovered the bodies suggest a ruthlessness of those who abandoned them. "The flood victims still lie where they died -- draped over a wheelchair, wrapped in a shower curtain, lying on a floor in several inches of muck," reports The New York Times. Frail and trembling hands had nailed a table against a window, pushed a couch against a door, lined up electric wheelchairs near the front entrance in the vain hope of fleeing the gathering storm.
Vesuvius erupted without warning, and only a few could get out of its way. The volcano doomed Pompeii. The early evidence, subject to examination at a trial, suggests that the owners of St. Rita's were repeatedly warned to evacuate their patients, but didn't. The state attorney general says the owners declined to accept the offer of buses to rescue those in their care. He has charged them with 34 counts of negligent homicide.
Blame has two human faces, those of Mable and Salvatore Mangano who are charged with crimes, and those of the bureaucrats at the federal, state and local levels who took neither Katrina nor their early responsibilities as seriously as they should have. A trial will explore whatever blame should attach to the Manganos for not acting in time, just as investigations at the top will attempt to show what went wrong with governments. Human failure is always best understood in retrospect, with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, but it's not difficult to round up a list of the usual psychological suspects -- carelessness, selfishness, irresponsibility, wishful thinking and greed.
How to prevent human vulnerabilities from taking over in future disasters is much more difficult. The wrangling over federal, state and local aid, particularly as set out in the president's ambitious speech on Thursday night, demonstrates what we're up against; the catalog of human flaws is a long one, even among those who sincerely want and intend to do good.
In the movie "Cabaret," Joel Grey and Lisa Minnelli sang of the most alluring temptation of all: "Money, money, money, money, money." Add red tape, the natural competition for power and control, and we've got disaster.
Arguments over Medicaid for the evacuees from the storm, for example, further complicate attempts to rebuild lives. Eligibility requirements vary from state to state, and evacuees from Katrina open a new category of Medicaid recipients. Who gets Medicaid money, how they qualify and how eligibility is determined is crucial. No one, especially politicians, wants to be Ebenezer Scrooge when confronted with suffering, but Pandora's familiar box floats above the receding floodwaters. Negotiating state-by-state regulations is frustrating and time-consuming, but one size fits all can be easily abused.
"You're torn between 'Take care of the people that need taking care of, period' and doing it in a way that doesn't break the bank," Rep. Joe Barton, Texas Republican, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, tells The Wall Street Journal.
Great sums of public money are at stake in the restoration and reconstruction of the flooded neighborhoods of New Orleans, and greedy hands are already outstretched, eager to grasp contracts that will be worth in excess of $200 billion. Red tape is always a nuisance, but cutting it without caution invites fraud, and especially in Louisiana, where fraud was perfected if not invented. Urgency can beget sloppiness and venality, and like the devil, they come in many disguises. Sometimes the pig that oinks the loudest becomes the pork chop.
We count on government to do its part, but we must be wary of the middlemen of good intentions, those who come to do good and stay to do well. Temptation flies in the eye of the storm, and often leaves the most terrible devastation of all in its wake.