I have not been writing about the devastating effects of hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and all along the Gulf coast because I felt that there was little that I could add to everything that was being said. Like most people, I have been overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster and the fact that we are seeing the evacuation of a major city that may not be inhabitable for months due to the difficulty of drying out a below-sea-level area.
But over the weekend, I listed to this week’s edition of the NPR radio program This American Life and the show was so powerful that I felt compelled to alert readers of this blog that it is one show that must be listened to. Fortunately, you can listen to it online. The program is one hour long but you will be so engrossed that you will not feel the time passing. If any radio program is deserving of an award, this one is.
The program usually consists of the host Ira Glass putting together stories about and from people around some theme. Last weekend’s program called After the Flood was about the hurricane events in New Orleans. It was in five segments, an introduction followed by four ‘acts’ as the show likes to label them. If you have limited time, listen to at least the first, second, and third ‘acts’.
The introductory segment had a knowledgeable person who quoted the laws governing emergencies to expose as hollow the current attempt by the White House to shift blame away from them and onto city and state authorities, and say that that their delay in providing relief was because they could not act until the local authorities gave them the green light. This expert said that the laws are unambiguous that the federal authorities had all the powers needed to act from the very beginning, without waiting for state and local authorities to authorize or request specific actions.
The first act was an eyewitness report by a hospital worker who ended up at the infamous Convention Center. She described the reasons why she and others could not leave town and the appalling filth and stench that she encountered when she arrived at the center. She also said that the ‘looters’ and ‘thugs’ were the only ones taking care of the people there. The ‘thugs’ took control in designated areas, kept order, and protected the people because everyone had heard rumors of rapes and assaults, although she did not witness anything of that sort. The ‘looters’ would go out and get water and food and juice boxes (for the children) and pass them around. This woman said that while the officials did nothing for them except keep them trapped inside and feed them false information and threaten them, the ‘thugs’ and ‘looters’ were the ones who actually did things to help the people there and make them feel secure.
The second act was a report by two emergency medical services people (I think paramedics) from San Francisco who had been attending a convention in New Orleans when the hurricane hit. These two women described what happened at their hotel and later their experiences stuck on a highway bridge as they tried to walk away from the city. This story clarified something that had been puzzling me for sometime. During the storm I had wondered how it was that news crews seemed to be able to enter and leave the city freely while there were these pictures of people seemingly stuck for days by the side of a dry highway. Why didn’t they simply walk away, if they were physically able?
The two EMS women explained why, confirming other reports that have begun to emerge. (See a New York Times report here.) It turns out that on the other side of the bridge was a small suburban community called Gretna and their sheriff and police were guarding the entrance to their town and shooting at the people on the bridge to prevent them from entering their town. So the people were stuck there on the bridge. The two EMS women (who were white) said their small group of eight had been joined by about 70 other people (mostly black) and they created a small community on the bridge which shared water and food, kept the place clean, created small ‘toilets’, and looked after the children and the elderly and infirm. She said that at one point a ‘looter’ came by in a truck and unloaded all the five gallon containers of water he had been able to get from somewhere, and took away as many children and their families as he could load into his vehicle. She said that the able bodied people in the group also ran to quickly collect some emergency rations that had accidentally fallen off a FEMA truck which was racing by, ignoring them. With this food and water, she said that the little community felt a little better. They also felt safe because night was approaching and the bridge was one of the few places where street lights were still working.
But as night fell, a Gretna policeman came and screamed menacingly at them to leave the bridge, and they had to go back towards New Orleans into the dangerous darkness. As she left, she saw a helicopter fly low over their makeshift ‘village’ and deliberately blow away all the little structures the group had put up to keep things orderly and sanitary.
The third act was about a young boy in a neighboring parish who spoke about what it felt like to have no food or water for days and to begin to think that the country as a whole had abandoned them. The final act was by a woman who had managed to escape before the storm to Florida, whose home had been flooded, and who was wondering what to do now, followed by a description about the trailer parks that were set up by FEMA as temporary housing after earlier hurricanes.
All the stories were very moving but as I listened I also became increasingly angry. On the one hand one had these amazing stories of people who had lost everything, who felt completely helpless and abandoned, coming together and overcoming race and class to try and help each other get through a desperate situation. On the other hand, you had the ugly sight of race and class prejudice seemingly being a factor in keeping people trapped in appalling conditions, preventing assistance from reaching them, and then blaming them for their situation afterwards.
I have given up hope that there will be any accountability of the national political leadership for the ghastly debacle that is now Iraq. Supporters of the war are fond of pointing out how bad Saddam Hussein was because of the cruelties that he inflicted on ‘his own people,’ as if that fact was ever contested by anybody, and as if that excuses the mess that this administration has made over there.
But apart from the damage created by the hurricane itself, what happened to the people of New Orleans and the neighboring areas was also done by us to ‘our own people.’ The outrageous treatment of them goes beyond mere incompetence and enters the realm of criminal negligence. There is enough culpability at all levels of government, city, state, and national. If major heads don’t roll for this atrocity that, unlike Iraq, cannot be sheltered under the cloaks of patriotism and nationalistic fervor, then we can say that accountability is truly dead.