THE POOR SHALL INHERIT THE WRETCHED
Like many, I've been glued to checking the news coming out of New Orleans every hour. I fully admit - there's definitely a morbid fascination at play here, the macro version of watching a car accident unfold in front of you. I've been trying to work through myriad thoughts about what's happening and how this all might play out for larger questions around society, government and the human cost of all this.
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1) This certainly pales in comparison to last December's tsunami but that was distant enough to feel remote and "somewhere else." I'm well aware that it's pure American parochialism to make a big issue of this disaster when something like 1,000 people got trampled to death on a bridge in Iraq yesterday too. In fact, it seems like disasters of that magnitude happen every other month around the world. Just not here.
Bottomline, it is still absolutely astounding to see one of America's bigger cities - and one with such a cache of identity and history - literally destroyed in front of us. I was asking a historian friend of mine what could possibly compare to this in recent American history and he half-joked, "the burning of Atlanta" which took place during the Civil War. In truth, something like the 1906 Earthquake and Fire of San Francisco would be more recent but certainly, it's hard to remember what else even remotely compares in terms of the sheer vastness of what's been destroyed.
Moreover, you would just think that in 2005, a city the size of New Orleans would be better insulated from this kind of circumstance then by levees failing. I know it's not as simple as that. As the S.F. Chronicle pointed out yesterday, levees bust all the time so perhaps it's not that surprising but seriously, who would have thought a break like this could wipe out 80% of a city?
2) This disaster is also laying bare what the price of poverty is: you will be left behind. Something like 20% of New Orleans was unwilling but more likely, incapable of leaving the city before the hurricane hit. A lot of ignorant folk are asking profoundly stupid questions like, "well, why didn't they leave when they had a chance?" which presumes that you have 100% of a population owning transportation and a means to pay for gas. People who stayed didn't do so because they were stubborn or stupid. They did it because, I believe, they didn't feel like they had any other options but to try to ride it out. Perhaps the next time something like this happens, more people will try to get out but that's only because they have this abject lesson to learn from.
In any case, it's becoming increasingly clear that the government either didn't have the means or the will to look after their most needy citizens. And should we be surprised that the bulk of this neglected population also appears to be Black (at least in the media's eyes)? Nothing like a natural disaster to lay bare all the fictions liberals and conservatives alike hold about the realities of race and class in America. In fact, this practically reads as a Derrick Bell parable.
3) Looting. I don't want to crowd the echo box on this issue any more than it already has but I do think this New York Times piece puts things in a better perspective than the knee-jerks on both sides. One small thought to add: in many cases, people were looting stores that would have been completely destroyed by the flood anyways. That doesn't necessarily make it defensible but the moral outrage over property that would have been lost anyways seems like a lot of wasted hot air compared to larger issues.
4) The pictures coming out of the Superdome are incredible. Many who were housed there are now being moved to the Astrodome in Texas where one hopes conditions are better (like clean water, working bathrooms, et. al.) By the way, just to check the math: 500,000 people live in New Orleans. 20% got left behind. That's 100,000. 30,000 people ended up at the Superdome, several thousand have been rescued the last two days. That leaves at least 60,000 people unaccounted for. 60,000.
5) I've heard rumors that the vast, vast majority of homes and businesses could not or were not insured. How is New Orleans supposed to rebuild itself under those circumstances? What will happen to all those who lost their homes and don't have the financial means to rebuild?