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Katrina comparisons are a different class of wrong

Meteorological DisastersHurricanes and Tropical StormsGovernmentNational GovernmentFires

You knew it had to happen.

The moment firefighters began to get an edge on the fires, pundits, bloggers and other gasbags couldn't wait to proclaim San Diego's superiority over New Orleans in government response to disaster.

A writer on the conservative Red State website said the difference, of course, was firm Republican leadership in San Diego.

"New Orleans, on the other hand," said the writer, "was a city on the federal dole dominated by Democrats, racial politics, and the legacy of Huey Long's populist-socialist dreams."

Everybody got that?

Republicans are better at evacuations than Democrats. This seems to be particularly true when the Republicans in question can flee down the highway in Yukons while Democrats wait for buses trapped under water.

"We've evacuated more people than were evacuated in Katrina," San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender said Wednesday.

Not only was that ridiculously untrue, but one might argue the evacuations in the San Diego area were made necessary by a lack of firefighting personnel and equipment in a region that shuns taxes and happily sticks outside agencies with the tab when the bill comes due.

Talk about being on the dole.

And I hate to break up the back-slapping party President Bush, Gov. Schwarzenegger and various local officials staged Thursday, but the equipment shortage in the state's wildfires was indisputable.

In 2004, a Schwarzenegger panel recommended that the state buy 150 new fire trucks, and only 19 have been ordered.

How many houses were destroyed by fire this week in Southern California? Was it nearly 1,800?

Don't get me wrong. In habitually corrupt Louisiana , bumbling pols made a horrible situation worse during Katrina. But as for the suggestions that San Diegans set the standard for responsibility and leadership, let's not forget that the city was on the brink of bankruptcy not long ago because of colossal fiscal mismanagement, or that San Diego County Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham was corrupt enough to make Louisiana pols stand up and salute.

At conservative Townhall.com, columnist Rich Lowry said comparing any natural disaster with Hurricane Katrina is unfair, which couldn't be more true. But that didn't stop him.

"San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium filled up with 20,000 evacuees and volunteers," wrote Lowry. "If the Superdome in New Orleans after Katrina was like a ring in Dante's hell, Qualcomm has been like a street fair -- with bountiful food, and even massages, acupuncture and yoga on offer."

Very interesting.

I'm wondering, though, if the absence of a street fair atmosphere in New Orleans had something to do with a death toll in the hundreds, with bodies floating in streets that had turned to rivers after a wall of water destroyed nearly the entire city and separated thousands of families.

Lowry is right, though. I was in New Orleans after Katrina, and I don't recall anyone offering massage and yoga. Nor did I hear the words, "Acupuncture, anyone?"

USC professor Jeff McCombs sent me an e-mail suggesting that if San Diego County had been run by New Orleans Democrats, half the firefighters and police would have deserted their posts, residents would have refused to evacuate for fear of looting, and the mayor would have told evacuees the federal government was letting it all happen "because they are white and Republican."

McCombs closed by suggesting "many in New Orleans think that Katrina was a national, white, Republican, race-based conspiracy."

Clearly, professor, you don't have to be from Louisiana to see the world in such black and white terms.

On CNN on Wednesday morning, a Navy petty officer who volunteered in Katrina and in San Diego got right to the heart of the matter.

"Here you have complete organization. You have a community coming together, getting things down and helping out. It's just amazing the way everybody is interacting and the cooperation between civilians, military, everybody. Like I have mentioned before, traditionally in our society, we have different classes of people."

Yes, we sure do.

We also have a president who was half asleep when Katrina hit, but, luckily for San Diego, seems to have learned a lesson from that failure.

But don't take my word for it.

"It's phenomenally better," Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff said of the difference in federal response, "because we have been planning and preparing and training together for the last 2 1/2 years."

There you go.

You'd think San Diego's staunch defenders would be thanking New Orleans for making these improvements possible, rather than all but calling the recovering bayou city a jungle filled with savages who got what they deserved.

But we have different classes of people.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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