Reading The Collected What If? (subtitled Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been) while tuned to CNN’s marathon coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in the US Gulf Coast, I couldn’t help but give thought to my own What Ifs on what is being touted as a humanitarian crisis akin to the Great Depression of 1930s.

1. What if – and this being the biggest What If wildly whirling in my head right now – George W. lost to John Kerry in last year’s presidential election? Would Kerry pass the buck, too, onto the federal government of Louisiana or FEMA for the lack of preparation and action? Would Kerry appoint inexperienced, ineffectual FEMA officials (as many charge embattled director Michael Brown) as political pay off? Would Kerry be caught in a prolonged vacation in Texas and survey Katrina's aftermath on a presidential plane than on ground with the displaced people?

Would the reported 3,000 of Louisiana's 11,000 National Guard troops stationed in Iraq make a difference in the rescue and recovery operations had Kerry won and withdrew American troops in the Middle East to usher in what he calls 'a smarter, more effective war on terror'? I mean, helping displaced fellow Americans from problems caused by a natural disaster would look more honorable than fighting insurgents in Fallujah – a problem arguably caused by the US itself, wouldn't it?

2. What if Louisiana took the necessary precautions, i.e. early evacuation of all residents, sufficient logistical support such as transportation, accommodation, and emergency supplies? Would there be as much social disorder (e.g. looting, violence, death) as reported?

3. What if France didn't relinquish Louisiana in the early 1800s? Would a French-built levee (which is French for lever, by the way *geek!*) stand stronger than an American one to not collapse in a Category 5 natural disaster as Katrina and skirt the displacement of millions of Americans (okay, French then) altogether?

4. What if Katrina didn't change course and hit Florida instead? Would there be as much damage, destruction, displacement, and deaths as those in Louisiana? Would oil prices be steeply pegged as nowadays (Man, I stopped checking at $4.05/gallon!)?

Ah, so many What Ifs to ponder heavily about. But for all its worth, these 'counterfactuals' (as historians call them *geek yet again!*) are, as the book suggests, 'tool(s) to enhance the understanding of history (…) reveal, in startling detail, the essential stakes (…) and potentially abiding consequences.'


Otherwise, Katrina (and its purpose as a big wake up call for reforms) will just be that: a big What If?