Hurricane Katrina blasted the coastline of Mississippi and Louisiana on August 30th and submerged New Orleans under ten feet of water. The unprecedented crisis flattened entire communities along the Gulf Coast, triggered the complete evacuation of New Orleans, and transformed 500,000 U.S. citizens into refugees right here on American soil.
Katrina is the greatest natural disaster in American history, but her damage transcends dollar estimates and a grisly death toll. The chaotic aftermath of Katrina has shattered the belief held by many Americans that the U.S. Government can rescue us in times of peril.
The 150 m.p.h. winds and 25 foot storm surge have subsided, but a firestorm of questions about the woeful local, state and federal response to the catastrophe, remain. Questions about race and politics have also seized center stage.
We question while we grieve for thousands of dead Americans and for the embattled city of New Orleans. We question who we are, what we want to be, and whether New Orleans, and America, will ever be the same again.
During this horrific tragedy our national character was on display for the world to see. There were extraordinary moments of heroism as the Coast Guard, the National Guard, and law enforcement officers throughout the Delta risked their own lives to save hurricane survivors. They plucked the stranded from rooftops and freed the desperate from attics rapidly swelling with water. Images of heroism were beamed around the world.
Twenty four hours after the hurricane smashed through the Gulf Coast, however, a darker side of the American fabric began to emerge – an image this country will never forget.
Heroism was replaced by desperation, violence and outrage. New Orleans was transformed into a morality play that exposed the best and worst of human behavior. Thirty thousand city residents were trapped inside the Superdome, another 20,000 were trapped at the New Orleans Convention Center. As flood waters continued to rise, hurricane survivors – and the world – waited for them to be rescued.
As the hours turned into four long days, the desperation intensified. Widespread looting swept through New Orleans as survivors smashed into businesses to swipe food, water, clothes and flat screened televisions. There was no food and water inside the Superdome, restrooms were clogged and people began to defecate throughout the arena. Brutal heat and humidity transformed the giant domed structure into a tomb of despair.
The young, old and sick began to die. Corpses floated through the flooded streets of New Orleans. An elderly woman died in her wheel chair outside the Superdome and was covered with a blanket for three days as victims waited to be rescued. Where was the help they needed? they asked. Had America forgotten them?
Television viewers around the world were horrified. Although at first reluctant to address the obvious, the media eventually reported what every viewer could see – that 99% of the victims trapped in New Orleans were black. Infuriated black politicians across the country howled in protest. Racism, the 10,000 pound gorilla in the room, was unchained.
A former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Elijah Cummings, of Maryland, said “We cannot allow it to be said that the difference between those who lived and those who died was nothing more than poverty, age or skin color.”
Blacks around the country believed the federal government would have been quicker to respond to the emergency if the trapped survivors were white,. That belief alone illuminates the stark separation between races that continues to flourish in America.
It is my own belief that the government’s sluggish response to the crisis had nothing to do with ethnicity and skin color, yet if we peel the onion back a few layers, one can make a strong case that just the fact it was 50,000 blacks trapped in New Orleans is a symptom of America’s troubled race relations, a problem we have not solved in 300 years.
Racism was not involved in the rescue attempt, but the effect of racism’s deeply imbedded presence in American life is why black survivors were the ones left to fend for themselves in The Big Easy. Many blacks in the Deep South have not found their way into the American mainstream, are poor, had no means to escape and died on the battered Gulf Coast.
Over the past 30 years I have travelled through the Deep South a half dozen times, wandering on back roads and stopping to talk to the people. The living conditions of hundreds of thousands of blacks living in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama is appalling. They live in tin shacks, plywood homes and dishevelled trailers with no heat or plumbing.
While it’s easy to say “Why don’t they get a job and better themselves?”, the problem goes much deeper that.
A majority of blacks in the Deep South have not been assimilated into mainstream American society. They remain on the outside, looking in. Government subsidies don’t solve the problem, they prolong it.
Joe Feagin wrote in a book entitled Racial and Ethnic Relations that “for centuries dominant white groups have seen to it that black-white relations are characterized by prejudice, discrimination and subordination.”
Feagin points out that historically white immigrants came to North America voluntarily, while most black immigrants came in chains, forced into slavery.
He further states that black stereotypes did not die with slavery. Prominent scientists throughout the 20th century continued to publish reports about blacks having smaller brains and lower mental capacity than Europeans. Blacks in America have been suppressed for centuries – even today – no more so than in the South.
It was only 50 years ago that Dr. King led the Civil Rights Movement through Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia. One hundred years after the Civil War, blacks were still unable to vote in many counties in the Deep South. Their rights as American citizens were oppressed by bogus voter registration procedures asking such ludicrous questions as “How many bubbles in a bar of soap?”
Whatever they answered, it was wrong.
Blacks have now gained access to the ballot box, but centuries of oppression has scarred the black psyche in the South. Millions are trapped in an endless cycle of poverty, illiteracy and despair.
America’s treatment of blacks is a stain on American history. That millions of blacks in the South are still unable to grasp the American dream is deplorable. America is capable of magnificent wonder. We can send men to the moon and back, but we can’t train, educate and lift up a race of people we mistreated and abused for 300 years?
That is racism.
This situation, especially in the South, has been in our face for more than a hundred years. Despite some attempts by the federal government we have not solved the problem. We have to do better. America can send troops and resources to the other side of the globe in the misguided attempt to spread democracy, but until we fully include blacks in the ethnic fabric of America – in all corners of America – we will not have fulfilled the dream of what American democracy can be.
Let’s get democracy right first here, before insisting other portions of the world follow our path.
As one blogger on New Orleans Metro online wrote,
“It is obvious that the vast majority of those who failed to evacuate are poor: they had nowhere else to go, no way to get there, no means to sustain themselves and their families on strange ground…. most stayed behind because they had no choice… trapped by their poverty – and many paid the price with their lives.”
And a vast majority of those left behind were black.
We left them behind, again.
So if the government’s deplorable response to the hurricane wasn’t motivated by race, what was the problem? Seven days after the hurricane, that remains the unanswered question looming before America.
Bureaucracy seems to be the target at the moment. But there are other variables.
Many of our troops are deployed overseas fighting George Bush’s overzealous attempt to disarm Iraq and destroy its phantom weapons of mass destruction. Our resources are overstretched. The National Guard, historically used to quell civil unrest and stabilize communities ravaged by natural disasters, is a large part of the effort in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This fact opened President Bush up to attack from the tens of millions of Americans who no longer support our effort to democratize Iraq. As some make political hay out of the chaos, there are valid and important questions that need to answered.
Number one, should we be spending $300 billion dollars a year forcing Iraq to submit to our democratic ideals when our own house is in chaos?
The decision boils down to a value judgement we have to make as a country. Are we responsible for policing the world? Do we have the resources to do that? And do we have the moral authority to even attempt such an effort?
I believe the answer to all three questions is no.
America is drowning in debt and neglecting millions of her citizens.
Picture this….you live in a ethically diverse neighborhood where squabbles often erupt between neighbors. One of your neighbors lives in the biggest house on the block and has an in-ground swimming pool in the back yard, a Hummer in the garage, and goes on a vacation to Europe each summer. These neighbors are know-it-alls and believe they possess the key to transform the neighborhood into a peaceful haven for all.
The only problem is that no one else in the neighborhood has agreed to their plan. But that’s of minor consequence because these neighbors know they are right. Their plan – bulldoze the raised ranch across the street and replace it with a Tudor home. Swap wives between homes at 301 and 308 Discord Lane. Shoot the yapping dog at the end of the road and ship the three mischievous boys in the orange trailer to Australia.
But while they are springing for all the change in the neighborhood the know-it-all couple neglects to tend to needs inside their own house. Their eldest son makes his own meals consisting of twinkies, ice cream and endless bowls of Captain Crunch cereal. After two months his teeth begin to fall out and he gets an ulcer.
The know-it-all couple are so busy rearranging the neighborhood that they forget to pay their bills and the lights, telephone and heat are shut off. The couple fight endlessly and decide to go on Dr. Phil’s television show to address their issues. Dr. Phil listens to their plan to fix the neighborhood and asks his patented question “How’s it working for you?”
Not so well, they decide, maybe they don’t have all the answers after all.
And that know-it-all neighbor is America.
While we are busy nation building in the Middle East our own house is falling apart. There are 50 million Americans with no health insurance and tens of millions of senior citizens getting by on increasingly small Social Security checks. Our southern border with Mexico resembles a slice of Swiss Cheese, tempting any terrorist to stroll across the Rio Grande with ease. It is a disaster waiting to happen.
So before we set out to rebuild the world, let’s concentrate more American resources on fixing the enormus cracks in our own foundation. We must close the gap between blacks and whites, rich and poor, and between the powerful and the powerless. If we are to change the world for the long haul we must have the moral authority to do so. Right now we are the know-it-all neighbors on Dr. Phil’s television show.
We can – and must – do better.
THE BIG ONE
Local, state and federal authorities have long known that New Orleans faced devastation if it took a direct hit from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. The Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans published a massive five-part series in June 2002 entitled “In Harm’s Way” which addressed this issue head on.
Staff writers John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein wrote “Sinking land and chronic coastal erosion – in part the unintended byproducts of flood-protection efforts – have opened dangerous new avenues for even relatively weak hurricanes and tropical storms to assault areas well inland.
“It all adds up to a daunting set of long-term economic, engineering and political challenges just to maintain the status quo. Higher levees, a massive coastal-restoration program and even a huge wall across New Orleans are all being proposed. Without extraordinary measures, key ports, oil and gas production, one of the nation’s most important fisheries, the unique bayou culture, the historic French Quarter and more are at risk of being swept away in a catastrophic hurricane or worn down by smaller ones.”
The series went on to address possible solutions to the threat.
“The often-combative factions are rallying around something called Coast 2050, a $14 billion, 30-year wish list of flood-control, water-diversion and coastal-restoration programs that would be the largest construction project ever undertaken. The plan is aimed at re-creating a historic mix of swamp, marshland and barrier islands by unleashing some of the natural forces that had been bottled up by levees and other flood-control projects in the past century.
“That should restore some of the region’s natural storm protections, scientists say, reducing inland flooding and wind damage from tropical storms and weaker hurricanes that have become common events in south Louisiana in recent years.”
But in the end, there was no money allotted to implement the plan. Despite arm twisting attempts by southern legislators in Congress, the answer was “there’s not enough money to address that issue right now. We are cash strapped.”
We have been too busy rearranging the neighborhood.