Monday, September 12, 2005

Not just the big easy

I just got around to reading a colleague's account of her travels through Mississippi last week. It's a sobering reminder that New Orleans is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hurricane damage.

In d’Iberville, the stench is horrible. I’ve had my air conditioning off to save gas and to vent the fumes from my gasoline cans, but I have to turn it on even as I leave the windows cracked. The smell just hangs in the air, almost palpable. It’s horrible, all things rotten and spoiled and decaying and decomposing. It feels contaminated, and it brings home health officials’ concerns about disease and infection. I wonder, will this ever be the same beautiful bay again?

Across the bridge into the city, I see massive steel commercial fishing boats tossed ashore like toys. Remnants of clothes and paper and who-knows-what hang high in trees and in fences, looking eerily like prayer flags strung in the mountains of Nepal, and a little like high-school kids had TP’d the entire area.

A line of debris lies pushed up onto the shoulders of the road. Wood, kitchen items, toys, paint cans, you name it. Unbelievable, but the storm surge reached here, more than a mile inland. Beyond, houses on block after block are open all the way through, showing the path of the surf and the wind. And again, smashed buildings, one after another. The Boomtown casinos is torn apart, with green-felt gaming tables lying in the muck outside.


The more I learn about what happened in New Orleans, the more ashamed I become of my own government. One of the things I wondered when the whole thing was first going down a week or two ago was why people didn't just walk out of the city. Obviously this wouldn't have helped the elderly or sick, but the masses of people in the convention center, Superdome, etc. with no food, water, or sanitation could have at least gotten out of the horrible conditions.

Well, it turns out the police officers and other first responders were occupying the bridges out of the city and were threatening to shoot people who tried to cross them, according to several eyewitnesses interviewed on this week's edition of This American Life. The show focused primarily on the experiences of two people -- a NOLA native who was stuck at the Convention Center, and a San Francisco conventioneer who wandered around with a group from a hotel eventually ended up camping out in a small community for several days on a highway median.

The witnesses told of police occupying two different bridges out of the city -- firing into the air and threatening to shoot into the crowd whenever a group of people moved toward them. One of the bridges was occupied by the sheriff's department from the richer suburban community across the bridge, and was quoted as saying that they didn't want the suburb to "become another SuperDome" -- a reference that could well be taken as meaning that they didn't want lots of poor black folks coming into their neighborhoods.

The contrast to 9/11 is striking. On 9/11, we remember the enduring images of dazed survivors walking miles to get out of the city, covered with dust. At the same time, the first responders were considered heroes, rushing the other way to fight fires and rescue trapped survivors. But in New Orleans it seems that the police -- the very people who were supposed to be protecting the city -- were actively preventing its citizens from escaping the unfolding crisis.

Forget this sham "bipartisan congressional committee" being pushed by the Republicans. This thing needs a full scale independent commission with subpoena powers, just like the 9/11 commission. 9/11 was, in some ways, a bolt from the blue. This was a much-anticipated emergency, and one in which government officials at all levels utterly failed to uphold their commitment to the people they serve. Someone needs to investigate this, ensure that those responsible are held accountable, and prevent it from ever happening again.

It also ticks me off that some conservative demagogues are already twisting all this around to support their own political predilections. Bill O'Reilly says that this is what happens to poor people who don't take personal responsibility for their lives. He has also stated that anyone who relies on the government to help them in a crisis situation will invariably be disappointed.

Did the government botch this? Absolutely. But to act as if failure was foreordained because government can't handle crises, or because poor people are destined to suffer, is to adopt a criminally negligent viewpoint. Governments, quite simply, are the only institutions with the resources to mobilize and effectively respond to a crisis of this magnitude -- and they have a moral obligation to protect their own citizens. Whether or not they are successful in this obligation is a question of planning, resources, and leadership -- not one of political philosophy. If governments are prepared, they will be able to respond effectively. In this case, they were not.

(The call for "personal responsibility" because of the failures of government is especially crass coming from people who have supported gutting key federal programs, replaced career disaster managers at FEMA with unqualified political appointees, and diverted massive amounts of money and resources toward fighting an unnecessary foreign war.)

I am shocked and outraged at the continuing revelations of just how badly this thing was botched -- and like it or not, one can't escape the twin factors of race and class. It's hard to imagine armed police officers threatening to shoot rich, predominantly white midtown Manhattan residents as they fled Ground Zero. But somehow this behavior was deemed acceptable when the victims had smaller salaries and darker skin. What does this say about our country?