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Katrina is "wake-up call" for US

President Bush comforts Katrina victms

(Keystone)

As the United States asks what went wrong with the Hurricane Katrina rescue, Swiss-born political analyst Paul Smyke talks to swissinfo about the likely fall-out.

Smyke predicts that President Bush, who has announced that he will lead an investigation into how the disaster was handled, will not be among the "heads to roll" as criticism mounts.

But he believes that the most powerful nation in the world will go through a period of painful soul searching about Hurricane Katrina, which devastated parts of southern US, leaving thousands dead and many more homeless.

Smyke, who also advises the World Economic Forum in Geneva on relations with Washington, told swissinfo that the US was reeling after being hit by a series of devastating blows in recent years.

swissinfo: Has the criticism of the rescue effort been justified?

Paul Smyke: This is as big a natural disaster as this country has ever faced and one should be realistic about what types of rescue operations can happen, particularly in the short term. To some extent a unilateral placing of the blame on the authorities is unfair.

On the other hand, it is legitimate to question whether the early response was realistic and up to the task. This is a wake-up call, particularly after September 11 attacks, when a good part of this country felt that such plans would be in place for this type of catastrophe. They simply did not exist.

swissinfo: Will this damage President Bush?

P.S.: The Bush White House is very adept at dealing with public reaction, but there is no question that some political damage has been done to the administration, as well as to state and local officials. I don't think President Bush himself will suffer greatly, but there might be one or two heads that could roll in the cabinet or sub-cabinet level.

I don't think there is going to be a long-term political price to pay for this administration, but it does compound concerns over the slow pace of progress in Iraq and general concerns among the public with respect to the way the country is being run right now.

swissinfo: Has the image of the US suffered throughout the world?

P.S.: The US has never spent a lot of time worrying about its image in the world. The reflection is more internal rather than worrying about what the rest of the world thinks about the US. But for people who are aware of what the world thinks, there is no question that it has been quite a blow to the reputation of this country.

swissinfo: Is it a surprise that some people have been shooting at rescuers?

P.S.: I wish we could say it is a surprise, but the reality is that there is a degree of poverty that exists in this country that many of the 260 million inhabitants are simply not aware of or have not experienced.

The reckless lawlessness and sheer violence is impossible to explain other than by looking at the deep-seated poverty that permeates a large section of the population. It was a situation when people thought: "What else have we got to lose?"

On the other hand, for every story of failure there were dozens of compassion. There have been countless examples of neighbours helping each other and strangers bonding together and of sharing their resources in order to survive.

swissinfo: How will the affected people rebuild their lives?

P.S.: There are an awful lot of people with nothing right now. Many people from the poorest communities did not have very much to start with, but at least they had a home. Now they have no home, no savings, no job and nothing to fall back on.

The immediate concern is what type of aid can be given to these tens of thousands of people who have been displaced.

swissinfo: What lessons can be learned from Hurricane Katrina?

P.S.: This is as big a wake-up call that this country could have. If you ask any leader in Washington what keeps them awake at night, they will answer that they fear a terrorist strike will take out a major US city. That has been a concern for ten years now. One would think that there would be any number of contingency plans for evacuation of these cities.

Everyone knew that New Orleans lies below sea level, but there seems to have been a collective failure over a number of years to build the necessary safeguards. The city and state were living in denial and that has caught up with them.

There is going to be a general consensus that a September 11-style of commission of independent, thoughtful people ought to spend time looking at what worked and what did not work.

swissinfo-interview: Matthew Allen

Key facts

US President Bush has promised to lead an investigation into what went wrong with the Hurricane Katrina rescue effort.
Politicians, such as Senator Hillary Clinton, have called for a wider independent commission to investigate the matter.
The economic impact of Hurricane Katrina has been estimated at SFr124 billion ($100 billion).

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