The discussion on World War touched briefly on the connections between the novel and the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Having grown up on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, I also thought of Hurricane Katrina while reading the novel. But unlike the aftermath of the hurricane in New Orleans, where the degree of damage and loss of life was rightfully blamed on the government’s failure to adequately prepare (“Make Levees Not War” shirts were popular in late 2005), the victims in Mississippi didn’t have such an easy target for blame. There were no faulty levees at fault for the loss of life and property in my hometown of Biloxi. It was just a historically strong storm that hit directly.
But since we like to believe we have control, and that nothing is simply inevitable, we naturally seek someone to blame. This is where I saw the narrator’s reactions in World War Z reminding me of the days following Hurricane Katrina. Particularly when interviewing survivors about the early days of the outbreak, I felt the weight of Brooks’s narrator’s persistent “Why'”s, and even heavier, the “why not’s.” Why weren’t you prepared? Why didn’t you listen to the warnings? It’s easy with hindsight to look at the warning signs that should have been heeded, and to assume that you would do better at recognizing and responding to them (notably, the narrator never tells us how he survived the “war”).
I heard the same questions asked following Hurricane Katrina. While most people were talking about the government failure in New Orleans, the few people talking about the rest of the Gulf Coast often wanted to know why people didn’t prepare better. After all, they lived in a hurricane-heavy area and were given a mandatory evacuation order well before Katrina made landfall. I’ve told stories of my friends having to swim out of their attics, and been asked why they hadn’t left before. But just as the World War Z survivors mentioned that the zombie outbreak came on the heels of swine flu, ebola, and countless other pandemics that fizzled out, a Gulf Coast-native is quick to remind you of how often the alarm bells are raised for hurricanes that do nothing. Less than a year before Katrina, we had Hurricane Ivan. Also a Category 5, also headed straight for Mississippi, also with mandatory evacuations and predictions comparing it to Hurricane Camille (Camille was the hurricane by which all others were compared until Katrina came along). And at the last minute, it veered east and hit Florida and Alabama instead. For some families, the decision to evacuate is a difficult one, including loss of income and the expenses required for gas, lodging, etc. So while the rest of the country saw the media panic over Katrina as something new, to those who purchased hurricane tracking maps every year, it looked like business as usual–right up until the moment it wasn’t.
So when we talked about the people’s right to be given all the information on a possible crisis, we talked mostly about the government’s motives in hiding the truth to avoid panic and hysteria. But the opposite effect is also possible. When all the information is given, the ratings-hungry media will hype every tidbit they’re given, and the public will eventually become more weary than wary. We can only panic for so long until we begin to notice crises rarely turn out as bad as they seem, and begin paying less and less attention. This is not to defend governments for withholding information from the populace that could help prepare them, but to say that the governments are not entirely incorrect in viewing the public’s willingness and capacity to respond as a limited resource.