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.