Saturday, September 03, 2005

We lost New Orleans

The disaster that was Hurricane Katrina has brought out the best and the worst in our society. Actually, I’m not totally sure of that; it may have just brought out the worst.

Here are the worst culprits in the post-storm tragedy:
  • The New Orleans city government and police force (and, complicitly, the government of Louisiana). It’s easy to see this now, but the mayor should have taken the initiative and started busing people out of town before the hurricane hit. He didn’t, but did at least offer the use of the Superdome and the Convention Center to house those who couldn’t leave on their own. Unfortunately, there was no forethought as to providing any necessities to these facilities post-hurricane, nor was there any order or anyone put in charge after the storm. Tens of thousands of residents were left to fend for themselves in these facilities, with no food, water, or leadership. The local police force, by all accounts fairly corrupt to begin with, proved totally ineffectual if not complicit in the aftermath of the disaster. The entire local government is to blame for doing little to plan for the storm, and for being rudderless afterwards.

  • The United States government, in particularly FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, and the entire Bush administration. Long before the storm hit, the Bush administration had drained the coffers of the Army Corps of Engineers, which resulted in necessary levy repairs and construction to be delayed. More important, Bush’s war in Iraq depleted the Louisiana and Mississippi National Guards by at least a third, and also deprived the Guard of many of the vehicles necessary to handle a disaster of this sort. And that’s just before the storm hit; afterwards, Bush’s callous indifference and inept leadership resulted in little or no Federal aid to New Orleans until four days after the hurricane. Four days. Third-world countries responded much quicker in the aftermath of the recent tsunami. When aid did arrive, the coordination and management was comically incompetent, resulting in even longer delays and, inevitably, more deaths.

  • Those people of New Orleans who took advantage of the situation to engage in predatory behavior against their fellow citizens. I’m not blaming those who scavenged for food and necessities (in my books that’s survival, not looting), but rather those gangs with guns who spread more fear and terror than there would have been otherwise.

When the extent of the disaster first became apparent, I was appalled by the media coverage of the so-called looters. It seemed… well, it seemed unnecessarily mean-spirited, in a conservative property-owning kind of way, and at least a little racist. I mean, if I were in a situation where there was no electricity or running water, where vehicular transportation was futile, where the supplies of food were dwindling and hope for assistance was days if not weeks away, you betcha I’d be trundling down to my local grocery stores, restaurants, and even office buildings (with lots of nice vending machines) to stock up on necessities. That’s what survivors do, and calling it looting reveals the unfeeling, uncomprehending, elitist viewpoint of the upper class. Hell, if I was a storeowner in New Orleans, I’d throw open my doors so my neighbors could get what they needed, financial considerations be damned. (Virtually everything being taken by the “looters” would soon be spoiled or ruined by the flooding, anyway.)

But then the situation just kept getting worse. You could see that the looting went far beyond simple scavenging for food and supplies; the very fabric of society was breaking down. One could blame the lack of a proper police presence, and that certainly was a contributing factor, but there was something more at play here. As many have pointed out, in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, in areas more poor than downtown New Orleans, civilized behavior still reigned; the people of the poorest nations came together to help each other, while the people of the richest nation turned on each other. The fact that for a few days, in a few places, American civilization reverted to a barbaric state, is at best a major embarassment, at worst an indictment of what our society is really like under its genteel surface.

The barbarism we’ve seen in Louisiana raises lingering questions about the problems of race and class in America. John Edwards was right; there are two Americas, and we just saw the ugly face of the second America in New Orleans. Middle- and upper-class residents were able to flee the hurricane; lower-class residents were forced to bear the brunt of the storm and the resulting calamity. The face of this disaster, the face of the second America, was black and poor.

I’ve heard some conservative commentators – and even President Bush, in an early statement – say that these people made a choice to stay behind, and now they’re paying the price for that choice. This attitude is blind to the facts, and symptomatic of much of what’s wrong with our country. Anyone with a car and a credit card was able to leave the scene beforehand. Those left behind didn’t choose to stay; their choice was made by the fact that they had neither the means nor the financial wherewithal to leave. These poor, mostly black, residents were forced to ride out the storm either in their homes or at the Superdome, trusting in the government to take care of them in their time of need.

Unfortunately, the government failed them. It failed them before the storm by not making their city safer and by not offering public transportation out of the city in the face of pending disaster; it failed them after the storm by abrogating its responsibility to protect and house and feed those who needed the help.

Hurricane Katrina was not racist; storms don’t discriminate based on color or income. Our society, however, does discriminate, if not officially then in the way in which it reacts in times of distress. Was the slow government response due to the fact that the victims were poor and black? Maybe not explicitly, but it’s hard to imagine a similar slow reaction if the disaster had occurred in an affluent suburb of Atlanta or Virginia. Can you picture the government response if the faces of the survivors were those of white soccer moms? Yes, race was a factor, in one way or another.

A bigger factor, of course, was government incompetence and indifference. Incompetence because the Bush administration put its cronies in charge of FEMA and Homeland Security; Michael Brown and his cohorts had no experience in managing disasters of this or any scale, which contributed significantly to the inability to respond in an adequate fashion. (Brown's prior management experience was as director of the International Arabian Horse Association, hardly a similar enterprise.) Indifference because the Bushies and their ilk simply don’t think that government should be responsible for the welfare of its people.

This last point is the one that enrages me the most, and the one that will ultimately result in defeat of many in the current Republican leadership. Instead of believing that government exists to care for the general public, Bush and his co-conspirators believe that government exists to enrich the upper class, the powerful, and the corporate elite. Everyone else, from the middle class on down, is left to fend for themselves. When a disaster occurs, it’s somebody else’s problem; that’s why we have charities, after all. This was best seen when Bush was touring Biloxi and met with two black sisters, victims of the storm; he asked them what they needed, they said clothing, and he told them to visit the nearest Salvation Army location. He didn’t say, “we’ll take of that for you.” He didn’t say, “the government has a relief center for you.” He said, in effect, don’t bother me with your problems, let somebody handle it. As much as I respect the Salvation Army, it’s not a substitute for the U.S. Army.

The repercussions from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath will be significant and long-lasting. This is, after all, a disaster several orders of magnitude greater than that of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The administration’s response was criminally inadequate, and everyone noticed. The media, forced to deal with the catastrophe head on, with no government handlers to provide the approved spin, has been aggressively attacking administration officials for their incompetence, not letting them slide by on the normal platitudes and propaganda. At the very least, expect to see the 2006 congressional elections go heavily anti-incumbent (which means a big win for the Democrats), with similar results in the 2008 general election. In fact, if the 2006 elections end up being significantly lopsided, look for some very embarrassing congressional investigations into the executive branch’s actions in this and other recent events, perhaps even leading to impeachment proceedings. Do not underestimate the wrath of a public scorned.

I hope that something positive comes out of this disaster. It is long past time for this country to address its simmering racial, class, and economic tensions. Some foreign commentators noted that the scenes from New Orleans looked like something from a Third World country; the reality is that too many citizens of our First World nation live in Third World conditions every day. It’s time for us to deal with this, and to start bridging the gap between our two Americas.

But that’s just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.


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