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Friday, September 2, 2005 - Page updated at 09:02 AM

Complete hurricane coverage

Complete hurricane coverage

A seattletimes.com special section

Danny Westneat

Why can't we help our own?

Seattle Times staff columnist

Last fall, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray ran a TV ad that is turning out to be prophetic.

She was sitting in an orchard, holding an apple, talking about local jobs and the economy. She said she was angry we're spending $100 billion rebuilding another country, Iraq, when we have so many needs right here.

"It's time we took care of our own," she said defiantly.

This nationalistic call to turn inward made me squirm.

But with what's been going on in New Orleans this week, can anyone honestly say we're taking good care of our own?

It's been four days since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Yet yesterday there was the mayor of New Orleans, sending out what he called a "desperate SOS" for food, water and evacuation help.

Armed gunmen roamed the city. Helicopters were attacked. Corpses floated about in the waters, some apparently shot to death.

"Where is the National Guard?" pleaded a man yesterday on a Web log run by the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper.

"Where is the federal government?" echoed the head of New Orleans' emergency-response division, Terry Ebert.

"This is a national emergency. This is a national disgrace," he told The Associated Press.

A few U.S. media commentators bitterly wondered why the French aren't helping more. Talk about projecting to cover our own inadequacies.

I think Murray was onto something. Hurricane Katrina crystallized it. It's now a major political issue: We aren't taking care of our own.

It's not that we can't help others, too, as we did after the tsunami. But is our nation so sapped and distracted by foreign commitments that it can't perform the basic duties of government at home?

That's the view of the guy who heads our local disaster-response agency.

"It's terrorism, terrorism, terrorism, terrorism," said Eric Holdeman, director of King County's Office of Emergency Management. "It's what all the funding is directed towards.

"New Orleans shows the result when known problems aren't addressed because we're fixated on something else."

Holdeman said what happened there — levees not fixed because resources were diverted to fighting terrorism and the war in Iraq — is being repeated here in Seattle.

Example: There has been no earthquake-response drill conducted here since 1998, though we had a major earthquake in 2001 and quakes are the region's most likely catastrophe.

"We don't have freedom to choose what we want to work on," Holdeman said. "It's decided for us, by the Department of Homeland Security, where it's all terrorism, all the time."

He added that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been gutted and "those of us who deal with disasters have no national leadership, and you're seeing that in New Orleans."

A focus on terrorism is understandable. It was just four years ago we were attacked.

But I'd say the war on terror has gotten the better of us if it's a reason we can't get food and water to our own people.

Reach Danny Westneat at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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