Pesquisa personalizada

5 de outubro de 2005


Aqui há uns meses, dei aqui um toque sobre Nancy Gibbs, da Time, mocinha que é capaz de ser uma escritora absolutamente notável. Na altura, fi-lo a propósito de uma peça sobre o Papa que não consegui reproduzir aqui — agora, volto ao fazê-lo por causa de uma peça que saiu na edição de 3 de Outubro sobre o furacão Rita. Parece-me que explica muito melhor porque é que eu gosto da maneira como ela combina análise, reportagem e opinião num todo eminentemente fluido (com desculpas pela dimensão da peça).

Act Two
Hurricane Rita brings a second cruel assault on the Gulf Coast. How well did we apply Katrina's lessons?

«We get to know our hurricanes so well now. We christen them and watch them grow from little tempests way out at sea to big, clumsy storms spilling bright orange rings all over the weather maps. We track them so closely that we fool ourselves into thinking that what we can't control we can at least predict, with all our models and millibars, as though it were not in the very nature of hurricanes to skid and twist and break things. That's worth remembering now as the skies clear and we measure what worked and what didn't, who overreacted, who waited too long, as though someone should have had perfect intelligence about the least predictable of all our natural enemies.

Was any storm ever watched as closely as Rita, Katrina's unwelcome sister come to test the learning curve? There would be nothing normal about her, not after where we've been. Politicians and reporters prowled the operations centers. FEMA rained press releases. Disaster officials positioned supplies every 10 feet across East Texas--truckloads of water and ice, hospital beds, even the microchips to be implanted in dead bodies for identification. Fifty thousand troops were on the ground, as local, state and federal officials strapped themselves together in a life belt of plans and protocols designed to protect both the public and themselves.

And still the ironies blew in one after another. The previous storm was followed by so much human failure that it all but ensured this one would be preceded by failure. Thirty-four elderly people drowned in New Orleans because they didn't leave, and 24 people in Texas burned when they did. People filled their cars with their most precious possessions, only to abandon them on the highway when the traffic stopped and the engines died. President George W. Bush could not win; even before Rita hit, grouchy critics were saying, "Well, of course he'll take care of his home state." And in sad and sodden New Orleans, where army engineers had spent the past three weeks dumping sand and gravel to patch the levees, the debates about rebuilding were drowned in the second wave. "People are just going to be thinking, What's the damn point if this is going to keep happening?" said a New Orleans cop as he surveyed a flooded underpass. Soldiers went out to stare at the waterfall over the levee, and some took pictures--a still life in human limitations.

The culture of blame thrives in this climate, so it was easy to miss the victories. It is no small thing to evacuate the fourth biggest city in the country--not just the willing and mobile but also the old, the sick, the stubborn, women in labor, babies in incubators, criminals in prisons--more than the populations of 15 states, all on the move at once. Some tempers melted in Houston's 100-degree heat, but the effort in its entirety was a pageant in patience and cooperation. In the end, the greatest irony may turn out to be the high cost of good news. It will be days before we know the full scope of the damage, in homes and lives and livelihoods. But if it turns out that for all the disruption, fewer people died, more homes were spared and the destruction was not as bad so officials had feared, they know there is one last price they will pay, a debt that will come due the next time a disaster wanders into view and they once again have to convince people that it is far better to be safe than sorry.

It turns out that you can't drain a city of 2 million people in a day. It's not as if it's a fire drill you can practice, other than on a computer model that will never account for all the brave and stupid and sentimental things people do when their world starts to rattle and pitch. Sound the alarms too soon, and you may disrupt lives for no reason. Wait too long, and you risk losing them.

For officials in cities across the country, newly aware that they had better have some kind of rational evacuation plan in place, Rita taught as much about the challenge of leaving as Katrina taught about staying behind. Los Angeles, sitting on a basket of fault lines, has no plans for a mass evacuation. San Francisco envisions sending residents out across bridges that could crumple. New York City at least has subways that can move 8 million people a day--but those lines are mentioned as a favorite terrorist target.

In Texas, the plan was for about a million people to move out of harm's way. The reality was that two and half times as many hit the roads, and that doesn't count the dogs and cats and goats and hedgehogs evacuating as well. The Texodus came in waves, first on Tuesday from Galveston, the barrier island of 57,000 that takes its hurricanes seriously, then thousands more from coastal towns and hundreds of thousands more from Houston, whose Mayor Bill White urged residents of low-lying areas to get out--now. "Don't wait," he said. "The time for warnings is over." In Matagorda County, sheriff James Mitchell warned parents that if they decided to try to ride out the storm and were caught, they could be charged with child endangerment and their children taken into custody. But for once, the public did not need much convincing. Forecasters couldn't say for sure where Rita was headed, and people weren't in a mood to take chances.

White called what followed the largest mass evacuation in U.S. history. It was also at times the slowest. By Wednesday Rita was a Category 5 hurricane, one of the three meanest storms ever tracked in the Atlantic, moving at about 9 m.p.h. toward her prey, faster than East Texas could run away. Fleeing families were lucky to move a mile in an hour. Soon dead cars lined the roadsides, and the tanker trucks meant to revive them were themselves stuck in traffic or else had the wrong nozzles to fit civilian cars. "They're saying if you have one-eighth of a tank of gas or less, to get off the roads and let other people escape," said Mary Sieger, 62. "But where should people go if they do pull off? There's no gas in the entire city. They can't get home."

Somehow state and city officials could not seem to reverse the southbound lanes until midday Thursday, and even that was remarkable because there was no master scheme for doing it at all. "Contraflow was never in the plan," White tells TIME. "We improvised it." One city official says that was only because of TV images of packed lanes next to empty ones. "They [state officials] were not going to do it," the official says. "It was never part of the plan because they believed that the roads could accommodate the traffic." But that's barely true on a normal day's rush hour, much less during a sudden spasm of survivalism. Governor Rick Perry acknowledged that being stuck in traffic for 12 or 15 hours was bad, but "it sure beats being plucked off a roof by a helicopter." It was a line he was to repeat all day.

After endless hours of getting nowhere on the roads, some families tried to turn back. By then, White was calling cars stuck on highways potential deathtraps. To focus the evacuation, Houston had tried to publish maps of the most vulnerable areas, but the average citizen couldn't understand them or didn't try. "I think people just said, 'Oh, my God, I'm in danger. I'm leaving,'" says Carla Prater, a Texas A&M professor who helped design evacuation plans for the state. "We didn't have time to adjust our plans in accordance with this new factor, the freak-out factor," she tells TIME. Dozens went to hospitals, and several died of heat exhaustion and dehydration in temperatures that could bake the fruit on the trees. White warned on Friday that for those who were not already on their way, it was now too late to go.

For those left behind, there was little to do but stock up and hunker down. At the Houston zoo, geese, ducks and chickens found shelter in one of the men's rooms while the turkeys commandeered a ladies' room. The Siberian tiger section offered sanctuary to some maned wolves and anteaters. "Everyone is secured from everyone else," said spokesman Brian Hill. "There's no danger of any animal taking advantage." Over at the Museum of Fine Arts, a cast of Rodin's sculpture The Walking Man was laid down so it wouldn't fall over and get hurt. At the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, even as the patients were evacuated, researchers combed the hospital's lab where some of the world's most lethal viruses are studied, terminating experiments, storing viruses in locked freezers and fumigating the labs to avoid the chance that something could escape if the building were crushed.

Big storms announce themselves with that famous calm, and people exploited it however they could. Mothers took their kids to the playground to wear them out in the event that they would be locked down for a few days. A case of water was going for $30 at a convenience store, and condoms were a top seller as well. "We needed heroic amounts of food," said David Fine, head of St. Luke's Episcopal Health System, "so we broke into a warehouse to get it." The hospital got permission to pry open the freezer at a McDonald's near Texas Children's Medical Hospital to liberate a huge load of meat patties. The general advice? "Don't ask permission," advised Perry. "Ask forgiveness."

Everywhere across the city and beyond, people imagined the worst, and given what they had been watching night after night on the news, that wasn't hard to do ...

Some Texans felt a gust of guilt and relief in the hours that followed, as Rita wobbled eastward on her path ashore. They knew they did not want to be on the dirty side of a big storm, the eastern wing that tosses tornadoes as she goes. Instead she moved in on the Texas-Louisiana coastline, somehow steering between the major population centers, and managed to avoid most refineries. But Rita was so big and slow, she still caused trouble hundreds of miles in every direction, including Katrina's stomping grounds. In Beaumont, Texas, police patrolled the blacked-out streets in cruisers and on the backs of dump trucks, shotguns ready. "It was really whipping through here last night," said resident Bill Dode. "It was extremely loud, and the house was creaking." Tree branches were poking through some cars' windows and some homes' walls. At one house, a goat was standing on top of a patio table, braying at a window.

In New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin, aware that half his population may never return, had urged people to come back, only to have to turn them around again two days later as Rita approached. Watching Rita hover offshore, the Army Corps of Engineers was worried that the levees could not withstand another blow. The pumps were still operating at only 40%, and while the city was basically dry, some streets were pasted together with poison sludge. Six inches of rain, max, they said, but the levees were already overflowing by Friday morning.

Meanwhile, the city recited its lessons like a chastened schoolboy. Buses were waiting at the Convention Center, along with half a million meals and a field hospital, in case the city endured a replay. A new $4.5 million communications system using military satellites was ready in case the phones went out again. But if the city was wiser, so were the people. They were not counting on anyone else to save them this time. In the French Quarter the Deja Vu strip club was open for business, but just about everything else was closed, and everyone was gone, except the cops, the army, the reporters and the looters. New Orleans and out-of-town police confirmed to TIME that numerous looters and carjackers had been arrested in recent days, some carrying guns and impersonating cops. "They're drifting back in," an officer said--and they're hardly the residents Nagin needs to repopulate his near dead city.

But if New Orleans was a vast urban sacrifice to greater knowledge, at least the experience was being studied at every level. The President had planned to go to Texas on Friday, having spent time earlier in the week in Louisiana and Mississippi. Wouldn't he just get in the way?, reporters asked, which may help explain why the White House misplaced the press corps, inadvertently sending it along to San Antonio while Bush decided to head for Colorado to watch the Northern Command coordinate the federal response. As he got a tour of the facility, he finally found his bullhorn moment. When he came across a 9/11 memorial, including a photograph of him atop the rubble at ground zero, he took out his pen and signed it "May God Bless America, George W. Bush."

Given the challenges that face him now, as gas prices jump up three more floors and Congress revolts and the global war on hurricanes threatens to break the budget, the President did get a break from the Rita replay. For all the complaints about Bush's handling of Katrina, it was Texas Senator John Cornyn who noted that "when you dial 911, it doesn't ring at the White House." While federal officials were much more attentive this time, officials in Texas showed they could make the machinery work together. Katrina was a pop quiz for Texas emergency chief Jack Colley, an ex-military man whose office is practically empty except for a few baseball caps, a picture of an old dog and a thick walking stick topped by a pilot's joy stick. He's a man who knows the sheriffs and mayors and agency heads by name. The state has held 150 simulation tests, including a cascading nightmare of a nuclear power leak, a Category 4 hurricane in Corpus Christi and a nuclear terrorist attack. Perry told Bush not to even consider drafting Colley when the Governor thought the President might be in the market for some experienced disaster hands in Washington.

In the state operations center, a former cold war nuclear shelter in Austin, Perry let Colley manage the conference calls. One sheriff wanted to know whether he would be reimbursed for the gasoline he provided to federal agencies. Another said he was overwhelmed with evacuees and was worried about security along the roadways where people with knives were fighting over gas. Perry dealt with the politicians. House majority leader Tom DeLay called for the fourth or fifth time. His district would probably escape the worst, but he wanted to be sure enough National Guard troops had been called up. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had been calling four times a day. Bush called four times and by late Saturday had gone home to Austin to see the operation for himself.

One disaster is a test of readiness; a second is a test of character. For those already wearing I SURVIVED KATRINA T shirts, it was a cruel challenge to their resilience. "It feels like it's following us," said a New Orleans evacuee. They were like Israelites in the desert. There was talk of moving ... to another planet. The next best thing, maybe, was Mexico. Some evacuees headed south because it was home, others on the chance that they might have to be gone for a long time, and life on the run would be cheaper there.

Once you've lost everything, there is little left to mourn. More than windows and walls, hope is hard to repair once it is broken. "It's like watching a murder," said a repeat evacuee in Lafayette, La. "The first time is bad. After that, you numb up." But if anything, the storm had the opposite effect on the officials in charge of responding to it. They were anything but numb--rather, aware that something profound had changed in the efforts and expectations. And that this was only the beginning.»
--Reported by Cathy Booth Thomas, Deborah Fowler and Wendy Grossman/Houston, Matthew Cooper/Washington, Hilary Hylton/Austin, Tim Padgett and Amanda Ripley/New Orleans, Adam Pitluk/Beaumont, Sean Scully/Philadelphia and Deirdre van Dyk/New York

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