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Year in Review: Disasters Natural and Manmade


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Former Secretary COLIN POWELL (State Department): I've been in war and I've been through a number of hurricanes, tornadoes, but I have never seen anything like this.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: (Through Translator) Dear brothers and sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me, a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.

Governor JEB BUSH (Republican, Florida): There are a lot of really dedicated people that have worked really hard to protect Terri Schiavo in this office, and, in the end, there were limitations on what we could do.

Mayor KEN LIVINGSTON (London, England): And then we had the tragedy of this attack, an attack that sought not the powerful and the famous but just indiscriminately slaughtered Londoners, irrespective of race, culture, religion or age.

Ms. CINDY SHEEHAN (Anti-War Activist): Mr. President, my name is Cindy Sheehan. On April 4th, 2004, my son, Casey, was killed in Iraq.

Unidentified Woman: No one in New Orleans had any clue that this was about to happen to us. And it was really quite stunning how quickly this went from, `Oh, another little storm spinning in the Gulf,' to `it's headed straight for us; run for your lives.'

Mr. MICHAEL BROWN (Former FEMA Director): While my heart goes out to people on fixed incomes, it is primarily a state and local responsibility, and in my opinion, the responsibility of faith-based organizations, of churches and charities and others, to help those people.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: American soldiers and Marines are out there every day, and, back home, a few opportunists are suggesting they were sent into battle for a lie.

Representative JOHN MURTHA (Democrat, Pennsylvania): I go by Arlington Cemetery every day, and the vice president, he criticizes Democrats. Let me tell you, those gravestones don't say Democrat or Republican, they say American.

(Soundbite of cheers, applause)

Representative JANE HARMAN (Democrat, California): We've had this black hole for four years in which the rules on detentions and interrogations were completely unclear and they were changing on a frequent basis depending on what White House policy memo was being followed for the moment.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (State Department): The United States does not transport and has not transported detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture.

Pres. BUSH: The Iraqi people now enjoy constitutionally protected freedoms, and their leaders now derive their powers from the consent of the governed. Millions of Iraqis are looking forward to a future with hope and optimism.

WERTHEIMER: You just heard from former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Pope Benedict the XVI, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, London Mayor Ken Livingston, Cindy Sheehan, an unidentified Hurricane Katrina survivor, former FEMA director Michael Brown, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Democratic Representatives John Murtha and Jane Harman, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and, again, President George Bush, all voices from 2005, a year that began and ended with the consequences of natural disasters. 2005 was also a year in which manmade disputes and challenges plagued, energized and humbled many.

Senior news analyst Dan Schorr joins us to talk about the year's news. Dan, hello.


Hi, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Dan, any discussion of 2005 should begin with the enormous power of nature to change the way we map the world and the people in it. The tsunami occurred in late 2004, but, of course, the humanitarian effort continued well into 2005; it's still going on. Here at home, Katrina dominated the news. And then on the border between India and Pakistan, an earthquake killed many and left hundreds of thousands to brave a bitter winter. What lessons do you think we can take from how these separate episodes have been handled around the world--the tsunami, Katrina, the earthquake in Pakistan?

SCHORR: Well, I think one of the great lessons to be learned is that the world, the people in the world, have to learn to help each other. It was interesting to me how--different reaction to one of these great crises against another. For example, if you take what happened in the case of the tsunami, you found that people all over the world were pitching in to help. It was really quite remarkable. In some cases, the government forces were almost worn out trying to help, but they did. They did a lot.

The same happened in the case of the earthquake in Pakistan. There was a drain on resources, but people pitched in from all over the world. I don't know why it is that in Katrina, on our own doorstep, in our own country, they only ended up with people blaming people for not doing enough, leaving a sense in all of these countries, and especially in our own country, that we simply were not ready to match the needs of the time. And so you sort of wonder can we learn from Pakistanis? Can we learn from Indonesians? Somewhere you think America must learn to be able to cope with natural crisis at home.

WERTHEIMER: Dan, I think that the American people did give a lot of money to the Red Cross, to other organizations but it was the government response that was so seriously criticized, particularly because of the White House and FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which really just bore the brunt of most of that criticism.

SCHORR: That's right. There are, indeed, lessons to be learned. We set up something called Federal Emergency Management and can do everything, apparently, except manage an emergency. Now it is true that this wasn't the kind of emergency that they expected, that they're now very much geared to the possibility of the war with terrorists, but they certainly found themselves ready for the wrong crisis. And not only that, but you had somebody like Michael Brown, the head of FEMA, who seemed not to think it was important to go right to work when it happened. But I think we learned from these things.

WERTHEIMER: Of course, he was very soon the former head of FEMA after that performance. Dan, let's turn to the other story that dominated news this year and last year and the one before that, Iraq. Is there a way to sort of neatly categorize this year in Iraq?

SCHORR: Neatly? No. It is everything except neat. I mean, one can say that having had now three different elections, all of which were run off all right, all of that sounds rather encouraging. There remains the likelihood or possibility of a civil war among the sectarian groups. The effort is to bring them together. They may or may not be brought together. For once, I really think that is--could be either way, and you sort of want the whole of the world to keep their fingers crossed.

WERTHEIMER: So while Iraq has been hanging in the balance this year, Americans have come to some of their own conclusions. Many appear to lose confidence in the president and in his vision of what the US might be able to accomplish in Iraq.

SCHORR: Yes, that is one of the issues on which the president has lost a great deal of confidence. Americans have displayed their willingness to support a war as long as the war gave sign of coming to an end at some point. And it is the fact that there's no way of telling what happens next and how long it will go on. We're now at a stage where Americans are saying, `What are we doing there? Whatever was the reason for getting there, why are we not getting out?' It's a situation in which they can't stay really and they can't go really.

WERTHEIMER: Dan, part of what disturbed congressional leaders and many Americans this year has been reported disclosures of allegations of US-sponsored torture. The war on terror seems to be stirring fear at home as to what is being done in the name of protecting Americans.

SCHORR: Yes, well, it was always so that where you had to have--as drawing some kind of balance between protecting civil liberties and the national security element. Now we're finding that running somewhat scared, that the administration tends to do things which really do attack civil liberties. They come in and say, `We don't want to go and get warrants from courts in order to carry out wiretaps. We want to do it ourselves.' Why? It's not clear. There apparently is some technology involved here that we don't know very much about.

WERTHEIMER: Dan, let's move on to the Supreme Court. A number of surprises this year. Chief Justice Rehnquist was expected to announce his retirement, but then Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement instead. Then in the middle of the Katrina news, Chief Justice Rehnquist died.


WERTHEIMER: That made two seats to fill on the court. Enter John Roberts and Harriet Miers; then exit Harriet Miers and enter Samuel Alito.

SCHORR: That's right. This is really very important. I mean, it's the first time we've had two vacancies within one year in a very, very long time. And this is not simply a judicial matter of filling a couple of seats. We're talking now of a Supreme Court, which is balanced in a rather precarious way, and we're really talking about the direction of this country for coming years.

WERTHEIMER: Another important death, Pope John Paul II died this year after a very long illness. It seemed important to the pontiff to make his physical suffering public. Here at home, a different quality of life story commanded our attention, and that was family differences over the condition of Terri Schiavo. It ultimately involved state politicians in Florida and congressional leaders, the president himself, an appeal to the Supreme Court. Dan, what do you think the Terri Schiavo episode tells us about who we really are as Americans?

SCHORR: Although this had to do with only one life, it really had a lot to do with America's attitude towards life in general. America is still trying to find out how you deal with lives like this. What rights do you have? What rights don't you have and who decides? We have not solved that problem and I think we'll have other versions of the Terri Schiavo case months, years to come.



WERTHEIMER: ...happy New Year.

SCHORR: Happy New Year to you.

WERTHEIMER: News analyst Dan Schorr.

It's 18 minutes past the hour. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Weekend Edition Saturday
As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.
Daniel Schorr
Daniel Schorr passed away on Friday, July 23, 2010. See an obituary, photo gallery and an archive of Schorr's commentaries for NPR.