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What we need to ask ourselves

I've spent the last two weeks, like most Americans, trying to come to terms with the post-apocalyptic visions of the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Natural disaster is nothing new to me. On May 18, 1980, I felt the ground rumble as Mount St. Helens erupted. Thousands in my home state lost their homes and lives, buried under tons of gray ash and mud.

Five years later, I was in Mexico City when a major earthquake felled high-rise buildings, crushing thousands underneath.

What amazed me, in each case, was the almost instantaneous emergency response. Though the eruption of Mount St. Helens could not reasonably have been predicted, nearly everyone in the path of destruction had been evacuated. For the most part, only those who willingly chose to stay in the danger zone died as a result of the massive explosion and resulting mud slide.

Those in Mexico City had no such warning. Tens of thousands died in a matter of minutes, primarily because many buildings and structures had not been built to withstand the massive forces that seismologists long had predicted. A corrupt bureaucracy had blood on its hands, having looked away for decades as unscrupulous builders skimped on materials.

Still, emergency clinics sprung up within hours, and tens of thousands of persons received immediate medical attention. Refugee tent cities were erected, and food, water and clothing were made available to the needy within two days.

This is why I found the agonizingly slow response to Katrina both horrifying and incomprehensible.

For decades, the federal government -- both Republicans and Democrats -- refused to adequately maintain or strengthen the levees and flood canals that might have protected New Orleans.

President Bush's assurances that the relief effort was not impeded by having one-third of the Louisiana and Mississippi National Guards stationed overseas strained the boundaries of common sense. That much manpower and equipment surely would have expedited the response.

But we, as a people, supported the Iraq war and the president, whom we elected overwhelmingly in the last election. And he has produced the government we have asked for. Over the last decade, Americans have been caught up in ideological battles about issues such as abortion rights and prayer in schools, the right to die and gay marriage.

Political debate has focused on such issues, not on bread-and-butter concerns such as infrastructure, universal health care, or -- incredibly, given the terrorist attacks of 9/11 -- adequate training for and support of first responders, from police and fire officials to EMS teams. We elected a president who promised massive tax cuts (mainly for the wealthy), even in the face of growing deficits.

And, above all, we failed to speak out against a reckless war policy that has drained hundred, of billions of dollars that might, in hindsight, have been better spent domestically.

As Americans, we need to start defining what government should be and what it should do. Is it the government's job to spread democracy across the globe, or to take care of business back home?

Should we be concerned with the welfare of citizens in the Middle East, while neglecting the most impoverished of our own citizens?

Should we look for ways to fund alternative energy research, or authorize more drilling in Alaska?

Should we build new nuclear weapons, or invest in health care for all?

Should we allow energy companies to reap the biggest profits in decades, while the average citizen's budget is strained to buy gas to get to work, or heat to stay warm in winter?

We have neglected many additional threats posed by an aging and neglected national infrastructure, failing social policies that are forcing more Americans into the ranks of the impoverished, and a failure of will to right the endemic unfairness of a capitalist economic system that has been rewarding corporations and the extremely wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

Perhaps that should be the most important lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina: You can't have your cake and eat it, too. We need to reset our national priorities, and we need to do it now, before the next hurricane -- or perhaps the next terrorist cell -- reaches shore.

Gavin Ehringer is a Colorado Springs-based writer. Public Eye, which usually runs in this space, will return next week.

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