A lot of people are comparing the response to Hurricane Katrina to that of the attacks on 9/11, especially the World Trade Center.
While it is tempting, as that was the most recent great disaster to hit the United States, there are some significant differences that should be noted.
1) 9/11 was an attack, while Katrina was a natural disaster.
Katrina gave us warning, let us know that it was coming. Further, it was the sort of thing we routinely speculate about and know will eventually happen. 9/11 was a surprise attack, with no forecasters telling us it was coming, predicting just where it would hit and when.
Also, with 9/11, we knew that there would be more attacks unless we stopped them. We had a clear enemy to fight, and we did. You can’t declare war on hurricanes.
2) The attack on 9/11 consisted of four jet liners.
An average hurricane has as much energy as every single nuclear weapon ever detonated — and Katrina was one of the biggest we’ve seen in some time.
3) The 9/11 attacks were focused on three areas — the World Trade Center complex in New York City, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania.
The destruction, while tremendous, was also very focused and concentrated. Katrina devastated an area roughly the size of Great Britain.
4) Once the last building came down, and the fires were mostly put out, the disaster areas were immediately accessible to rescuers.
With Katrina, the destruction — especially in New Orleans — continued, and continues to this day.
To draw in yet another comparison, the tsunami that ravaged Southeast Asia was similar to Katrina. But with the tsunami, once the wave passed, the waters receded and rescue and recovery could begin. In New Orleans, the waters came — and stayed.
Parallels and analogies are useful things, but they reach a point of diminishing returns. No two events are ever exactly alike, and sooner or later any comparison will fall apart.
I think the closest we can find in our histoyr would be an earthquake, such as the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. There, too, the devastation was immediate, but also persistent (fire and aftershocks). And the lines of communication were destroyed, as well as much of the infrastructure. But that was at a time before our Age of Communication, with the 24-hour news cycle and instantaneous information flow. Other workable parallels might be Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
I don’t think the United States has ever seen anything quite like the destruction wrought by Katrina and, if we’re lucky, we won’t again for a very long time. But if anyone ever wants to see what one of our cities might look like after it’s been hit by a weapon of mass destruction, just send them down to The Big Easy.
Update: In the comments, Brian S. brings up the Chernobyl nuclear disaster as a touchstone for New Orleans. While there are some significant differences, such as the worldwide ramifications and the initial lies by the government about the nature and severity of the catastrophe, they don’t really detract from the usefulness as a model. Brian, I am greatly annoyed with you for bringing this up — but more annoyed with myself for not seeing it first.