setembro 03, 2005

KATRINA / The United Mistakes of America

Shame of a nation

In rode the troops, with plenty of food and water and medicines, and for sure with firepower enough to make fast work of any armed-thug types who might choose to feel trigger-happy, and conditions last night in New Orleans were well on the way to being measurably improved. Thousands of storm victims were getting themselves evacuated from the hellhole Superdome. Thousands more were safe in shelters in Houston and Dallas and San Antonio and elsewhere. The airport was open, and medevac planes were regularly lifting out the desperately ill.
Sadly - maddeningly, and indeed infuriatingly - help arrived not soon enough to spare the wretched souls of New Orleans from miseries and horrors they were forced to endure for entirely too long. President Bush himself snapped that the federal government's disaster-response performance had been "not acceptable."

But yesterday, visiting the stricken Gulf Coast before signing off on more than $10 billion in preliminary aid, he made a point of publicly thanking Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff and Federal Emergency Management Agency boss Michael Brown for their tireless work. What tireless work? The weasel Brown said the anticipated high death toll is "going to be attributable a lot to people who did not heed the advance warnings" and get out. Such compassion. Such stupidity. Many of them had no means of escape. And so they stayed behind, trapped in a doomed city as the lights went out and the poisoned waters rose. As for Chertoff, if this is the best his department can do, the homeland is not very secure at all.

It is absolutely outrageous that the United States of America could not send help to tens of thousands of forlorn, frightened, sick and hungry human beings at least 24 hours before it did, arguably longer than that. Who is specifically at fault for what is nothing less than a national scandal will be a matter for the postmortems.

It will never be known exactly what a day could have meant to so many unfortunates whose lives came to an end in those hopelessly tortured hours - on scorching roadsides, for lack of a swallow of water; in sweltering hospital beds, for lack of insulin. But what is already more than clear is that the nation's disaster-preparedness mechanisms do not appear to be in the hands of officials who know how to run them.

Does not compute

If there's a group of foreigners this country should welcome with open arms, it's high-tech workers. Their skills and brainpower are desperately needed by American businesses facing critical shortages of homegrown engineers, scientists and computer whizzes.

Yet these highly educated strivers are being denied entry by protectionist politicians. Congress has capped the H-1B visa program, which allows skilled workers from overseas to hold jobs in the U.S. temporarily, at just 65,000 per year. That's a third of what was allowed a few years ago. The number is so stingy - and the demand so heavy - that immigration officials cut off applications for 2006 visas on Aug. 10, the earliest ever.

The pols might think they're helping American-born high-tech workers, who don't relish competing with freshly minted software engineers from India, Korea and China. In fact, they're shooting the nation's economy in the foot. Corporations have to shell out thousands of dollars in fees and fill out reams of paperwork to hire a single H-1B worker, and he or she might have to go home after six years. Employers wouldn't go to the trouble if qualified Americans were banging down their doors.

The bottom line is that the American education system isn't turning out enough math and science geeks. A Business Roundtable report notes that South Korea educates as many engineers as the U.S. with just one-sixth the population. The report predicted that Asia will account for 90% of all scientists and engineers by 2010.

The U.S. must encourage more of its college kids to major in math and science - as the Business Roundtable recommended. But this won't happen overnight. In the meantime, we cannot afford to cut ourselves off from the best and the brightest of other countries. Worse, refusing to allow high-tech workers into America only encourages corporations to outsource jobs to India and other foreign locales. If Congress would rather "insource" jobs, it will lift this nonsensical and shortsighted cap on H-1Bs.