Disasters and Devastation

Last week, Hurricane Katrina hit the coastal Southeast and devastated entire cities. No one knows how many people are dead, injured, or even displaced; there are dead bodies floating in not-yet-receded water, and there's no way of telling when those who fled or were evacuated will be able to return to what remains of their homes.

The scenes from the hurricane-hit areas are awful. But even in the midst of disaster and devastation, the media coverage has been skewed by, to put it plainly, racism. The most obvious example is the controversy over the two photos of people in New Orleans who were carrying food away from grocery stores. The caption underneath a photo of two white people said they had found the food; the caption underneath the photo of the African American man said he had looted it. Indeed, most of the pictures of people "looting," and most of the TV footage of crimes taking place in the devastated areas, feature African Americans - even though, as people keep pointing out, there are usually dozens of people at each scene, including white people. But the white people aren't looting, right? They're finding - and that's not really news, is it?

Even beyond such clearly racist usages, the word "looting" itself deserves scrutiny - and should be used sparingly if at all. We all know what looting is - taking large amounts of goods that aren't rightfully yours. But when you are trapped somewhere with no food and water, no way out, and no idea when or if relief is going to come, you should have the right - even the responsibility - to take food and assistance wherever you can find it. But of course, that notion is in conflict with America's fetishization of private property, and so we keep on hearing about hurricane survivors "looting" what they need in order to live.

The ingrained racism that has led to the media focusing on African Americans in particular as criminals profiting from the devastation, rather than as victims of the hurricane, also played a part in the underfunding of flood protection in New Orleans. In 1965, when New Orleans was hit with a Category 3 hurricane, the Ninth Ward suffered the brunt of the damage. One would imagine that, as a result, the government would have paid particular attention to levees and other flood protection for the Ninth Ward. One would imagine that the experience of 1965 would have meant that the Ninth Ward was at the top of the list for flood prevention and aid. Except that the Ninth Ward was and is predominantly African American and poor. And if there's one thing - no, wait: if there's two things that ensure that you will be ignored by decision makers, they are being African American and being poor.

These two issues - racism and poverty - have played an important role both in the bad preparation and in the execrably slow response. Poor people - predominantly African Americans - have probably suffered the most in this hurricane, because they are the ones who can't get out of its path. Many don't have cars. Unless they have people to stay with, most cannot afford to pay for hotel living for an indeterminate time. It isn't that they chose to stay (as reporters keep suggesting); for most, it's that they couldn't leave, and they were sitting ducks when Katrina roared into town.

If there's one thing this nation deals with as badly as race, it's class, and so while there are some reports about the systemic discrimination against people of color and the poor, they are outweighed, especially on television, by reports about how hurricane victims are looting and thus - gasp - endangering other people's private property. They're criminals, not victims; looters, not survivors. Had this hurricane roared into, say, Marin County, or Martha's Vineyard, you'd better believe that FEMA and others would have sent every possible aid as soon as humanly possible. Instead, the president kept on playing golf and comfortably ignored the devastation the hurricane wreaked on areas where many residents are African American or where many residents are poor.

And although the media should be criticized for their casual and callous racism, even that pales in comparison to the issue of the government's response - or lack thereof. FEMA, which claims that it is the first responder in any national emergency, essentially twiddled its thumbs. Most of the necessary National Guard equipment, as well as most of the National Guard, was tied up in Iraq. Offers of help from other areas and other countries were ignored. Bush didn't even issue a statement the first day of the disaster, and when he finally did, it was a speech that the New York Times called "casual to the point of carelessness." When he later got around to touring some of the affected areas, he had food centers set up - and taken down right after he left!! - so that he could get good photo ops with minimal effort, making it abundantly clear that his goal is not to aid disaster victims but only to raise his dismal approval rating. How anyone can still respect this man, much less think he's a good leader, is utterly beyond me.

The evacuation out of the city has been disastrous in its own right, with evacuees given no information and waiting for days in unsanitary conditions with less than basic necessities. Why were there no immediate calls for aid, for food? Why didn't FEMA put every effort into this and instead claim, against any and all reality, that they weren't "invited in" to the area? Why wasn't the government more prepared, given that there was ample warning? Why did babies have to die in the Superdome due to heat exhaustion? Why didn't they accept Canada's generous offer of assistance - or that of the city of Chicago? Katrina leaves us with many questions, some of which may never be answered. But at least part of the answer to many of these questions is that so many of the people affected were African American; and so many were poor.

This evening I finally got hold of a friend who lives in New Orleans, and found out he's safe, staying with friends in Memphis. He said that the one good thing that has come out of this disaster is that news coverage has finally gotten critical. Reporters are actually asking questions; after years of kowtowing to the Bush administration, the media are finally beginning to do their job again, asking the tough questions and not letting themselves be put off by lack of answers or outright lies. I think my friend is right: this is the one good thing Katrina has brought us. But it is also a sign of our intellectual bankruptcy that it takes a disaster of this magnitude happening within the United States to kickstart our own critical thinking.

And we still need to wait and see whether this critical, questioning attitude stays with us long enough to see that flood prevention measures for the next time - levees, dams, pumps, et cetera - receive the necessary funding regardless of the race and income of the people they are protecting. Because we all know, unfortunately, that there will be a next time, just as it was clear that a disaster like Katrina was bound to happen. This is a long-term issue, and I hope that the critical thinking and the questioning of the status quo will grow rather than fade away, because we need it to help ensure that next time, we actually are as prepared as we say we are - and that we help those in the path of disaster no matter who they are.


4. September 2005



Wherever you are:

Donate money to the Red Cross.

Donate to the Red Cross via Liberal Blogs for Hurricane Relief, who are trying to raise $1 million for relief efforts.

Volunteer with LifeList to help find information about survivors online, or to help contacting hurricane survivors and their families with good news about their loved ones.

Donate to America's Second Harvest, or volunteer with them.

Donate to the NAACP's Disaster Relief Fund - in addition to providing immediate relief to hurricane survivors, they will "advocate for equitable distribution of money and resources from Federal, state and local government and other relief agencies to those hardest hit by this catastrophe" - which, unfortunately, will probably be quite an issue.

Offer to put up someone displaced by the hurricane in your home - whether you have an extra room, a bed, or even just a couch - through MoveOn's new project, hurricanehousing.org.

If you are in Austin:

If you want to volunteer, the city has set up an information line; you can reach it by calling 211.

Austin Goodwill is taking donations of "what you would need if you lost everything." If you aren't in Austin, check the Goodwill in your area; they may also be accepting donations for hurricane victims.

Volunteer with or donate money to the Capital Area Food Bank.

Volunteer with or donate money to the Central Texas Red Cross. (To volunteer, call the number listed on their site, as they don't have volunteer info posted on the web yet.)

The City of Austin has a "How to Help" site that you should check out if you have services or professional assistance to offer, especially if you are a doctor or nurse.


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