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I’ve completed overdosed on news and discussion about Hurricane Katrina. There are several tales in there of heroism, sacrifice, and beautiful human compassion that just make you want to hold somone tight, bury your face in their shoulder and not let go. But sadly, these stories are drowned in a river of stories of corruption, neglect, bigotry, malice, greed and arrogance, so diseased and foul that they won’t wash away.
To steal a line from one of the countless sites I’ve scoured for information: these people need food and water today, they’ll need food and water tomorrow, and they’ll need food and water the day after that. I’d love to tell y’all where to donate and how to help, but I have some new doubts about that. I’ll try to talk about this at the end of the article. Also, I think we should remember that while New Orleans gets most of the attention, large swaths of Lousiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida were also hit.
Let’s start off with some links to photos and first-hand accounts of the disaster:
Eyeballing Katrina 1, 2, and 3 (photos)
Survival of New Orleans blog
Email from Rescue Worker
Now let’s take a brief look at FEMA, the government agency that’s supposed to take care of Americans during disasters like this.
Here’s a brief chronology of how the agency was defunded, crippled, and used to reward political cronies during the W administation.
Here’s a longer article about the woes of FEMA written last year.
Here’s a piece about how Bush’s funding cuts for FEMA and the financial needs of his Iraq war directly contributed to the flooding of New Orleans.
And here’s a piece about how the Bush-appointed head of FEMA is unqualified for the post, and generally incompetent to boot. Mike Brown had zero experience dealing with disasters or emergencies when he got the position. And what was his prior job? For 11 years, he was in charge of judges for horse shows for the International Arabian Horse Association. And he apparently fucked that up so badly that he was forced to resign.
A man who couldn’t hold down a job supervising horse shows is in charge of disaster relief for millions.
How did he get the job? He was friends with Bush’s 2000 campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh. Who was the head of FEMA just before Brown. Who was, incidentally, also totally unqualified for the position. Who quit FEMA to start an company to help corporations exploit the new Iraq.
I’m pissed. This guy got the job because he’s a faithful Republican operative, and now thousands of people will die because of that corruption.
And here’s Brown’s boss lying to the public saying that Homeland Security (which now houses FEMA. Because we should be worried about terrorist attacks but not hurricanes or floods or tornados) that they never saw this coming. Even more galling, he tries to act as though this was a freak combination of torrential hurricane storm AND a flood. Which is sort of like saying you never expected anyone to give you milk to go with your bowl of cereal.
Now you’ve got some conservatives, and even FEMA head Brown blaming the hurricane victims for “choosing” to stay in the area. True, some folks did choose to stay. I heard an interview with a hurricane survivor who said that people didn’t take the threat seriously; there had been a full-fledged evacuation for Hurricane Dennis some years before, and that had only resulted in rain, not cataclysm. So some folks figured that this hurricane would likewise be mild.
And of course, there were also plenty of poor folks who “chose” to stay in the city the same what that you and I “choose” not to live in fancy mansions on the shore of Maui: cuz we could never, ever afford it. Plenty of the poor folks in New Orleans live paycheck to paycheck (if that), and at the end of the month, those paychecks were pretty much gone. And even if they had cars, which many of them don’t, where were they gonna go? Go stay in a hotel with money they don’t have, away from their jobs where they earn the little income they get? Or as another radio interviewee said, “you’ve got 20 dollars left, are you gonna spend that on a bus ticket or food for the kids? We chose food.”
So you’ve got tens or hundreds of thousands of people stranded, many locations in deep water. There’s no electricity, no running water (and the water you’re treading in is pretty filthy), no law, no commerce. You want food or drinking water, guess you’ve got to get it yourself. And since you’re in downtown New Orleans or Biloxi or wherever and not in an orchard or wildlife preserve, that pretty much means you’re getting your food and water from grocery stores or abandoned homes. If someone else wants to call it “looting,” fine, I’d gladly loot for survival. The pundits who look down their nose at this don’t want to admit it, but they’d probably do the same.
And some folks took larger, less necessary items. I saw a couple fellows on the news taking some matresses out of a hotel, which at first, seemed sort of frivolous or selfish. Until the “looters” showed the reporters that his family had been sleeping on the concrete floor of a parking garage for three straight days. “I can handle it, but my wife, my kids and my grandkids, they just can’t. I wanted to get them something to sleep on.”
Then you hear stories about people stealing Nikes, or plasma TVs or whatever. Some of these folks have lost everything that they had, and maybe they feel entitled to take whatever they can find to help them rebuild their lives. Maybe they’ve been poor so long that they’re willing to take this chance to have something nice for once. Or maybe they are being selfish (greed is not limited to any one income bracket). Most of that, stealing for survival or for gain in this destroyed city, I have very few qualms about. However there were cases of people stealing from other survivors, taking what someone else needed for themselves, and that’s pretty despicable. But then again, I don’t know what I would do if I was in their shoes.
There was talk of survivors shooting at cops and helicopters, but I never got much verification of that. I saw some first-hand accounts saying that it was a huge problem, others saying that this rarely happened at all. But this article argues that the New Orleans PD has a history of corruption and violence towards African-Americans, so maybe there was necessary or paranoid gunfire going out.
At a certian point, the city went insane and decided that is was more important to try to stop the looting than it was to save lives. The mayor ordered 1500 New Orleans cops to stop their search and rescue efforts so that they could focus on stopping theft. Which was doubly effective, I suppose, because without anyone to distribute food and water, all the survivors die, and there’s no one left to loot. At the pinnacle of scary, we see that when the National Guard arrived, they talked about “combat operations” and “taking this city back”, and “fighting the insurgency”.
Then, apparently, after collecting all kinds of food and supplies to give away, the Red Cross was stopped from entering the area by the National Guard. The excuse given was that bringing supplies into the city would discourage people from evacuating and encourage people to come back into the city. Which the NG had decided should be emptied. I also suspect that the NG feared that the civilians of the Red Cross might get attacked by looters and roaming gangs or whatever other violent figures they assumed were left in the city.
Which brings us to the issue of race and class in all this. New Orleans is predominantly African-American. And since race and income are so frequently joined together in this country, most of the poor folks in New Orleans were African-American. Which ends up meaning that nearly all of the stranded survivors in the city were African-American.
I have to wonder to what extent the molasses-quick emergency response was due to the fact that these victims were just a bunch of poor people. Or because they were black. I’m not saying that Bush and Cheney were cackling and rubbing their hands together on Air Force One saying “let’s kill all the Negros!” I’m saying that there seemed to be such a lack of urgency, that no one in government seemed that concerned, that they barely even registered the problem. It’s hard to imagine the president acting this way if thousands of middle-class white folks were stranded and starving. The only potential explanations for all this are incompetence, racism, and inhuman indifference.
I also worry that the “guns first, aid later” response was based at least partially on stereotypes. Did media reports of looting and gunshots make the authorities on the ground think “yeah, those blacks, they’re so scary and violent, it’s too dangerous to go in there with supplies till ‘law and order’ are re-established.” Hell, was there even much shooting and violence, or was that played up because it fits into stereotypes and past storylines (e.g. riots in LA or Watts)?
Some people say that race was not a factor, “Bush doesn’t care about black people because Bush doesn’t care about ANY people.” Fair enough.
And now we see apalling racism in the aftermath. I hear that Houston-ites are worried about all those black looters coming to their town. Neo-nazi scum are using the chaos of New Orleans to spread their claims of racial superiority. And a white, female Seattle activist finds that when she goes downtown with her homemade protest signs calling for the end of the “racist genocide” and for the impeachment of President Bush, about a half dozen white men threatened to physically beat her. No one from any other racial group threatened her with violence. Again, not many comfortable ways to explain that one.
Not surprisingly, the government tried to cover up their abominable efforts with a cornucopia of lies, which the media actually decided to cover for once. CNN posted an article about the “disconnect” between what politicians and FEMA officials were saying vs. what other sources were saying was actually happening. CNN anchor Jack Cafferty denounced the relief effort as a “disgrace”, that he had never seen anything as “bungled and as poorly handled” as FEMA’s response to Katrina. Anderson Cooper interupted a politician guest who’d been thanking other politicians for their hard work on relief to essentially say “shut up. I’m here in New Orleans and just saw a dead woman in the street being eaten by rats. I’m pissed, and the people who live here are furious.”
But my favorite critical media moment was from Fox News. Anchor Shepard Smith is usually an arrogant, smarmy fratboy who forcefully reads the news and tosses in conservative accusations no problem. But in this clip, Smith seems to have been broken. He’s been covering a single bridge in New Orleans, where hundreds or thousands of refugees are gathered, and they have not received food or water or any help for days. He’s being interviewed by fellow smarmy Fox bastard Sean Hannity, who’s trying to get Smith to say “The supply trucks are on the way, everything’s going to be okay.” But Smith can’t. He explains that the folks on the bridge aren’t getting food, no one’s telling them where to go, and he doesn’t know why or even who to ask to find out why. He just seems at a loss, he’s depressed, he doesn’t have any answers. Maybe seeing some real human suffering up close has put a crack in his stony black heart, and I hope he does a little soul searching about the evil he does everyday.
And speaking of black hearts, if this story is true, it’ll make you wonder what exactly circulates blood through Bush’s body. It claims that Bush had a photo op in New Orleans where he stood in front of an outdoor food distribution center, and that as soon as the media left, the center was dismantled. In other words, they packed up their set and went home, and hungry people kept on being hungry.
So things are bad. I don’t even know what to tell you if you want to help. I mean, I dropped some money on Red Cross and apparently the National Guard wouldn’t let them in. So if you donated money to them too, maybe none of our aid is actually getting to people that need it.
In alternative aid methods, the bloggers at Blondesense are raising money and buying supplies for refugees and taking them to shelters in Baton Rouge and Mississippi. Some DC activists and indymedia folks are raising money for supplies that they’ll load up into a rental truck and drive down south to distribute (and provide independent news reporting, I presume). And Food Not Bombs is organizing donation drives and planning to caravan out and start kitchens in Houston and Baton Rouge. And there’s this list of Grassroots/Low-income/People of Color-led
Hurricane Katrina Relief. These all sound like good projects, but I have no idea if the authorities will try to thwart them in some way.
One final note.
On 9/11, I was working for Rage Against the Machine. After the planes hit, our webmaster put a link on the front page to the Red Cross and urged people to donate money. Our messageboards were soon hit by comments accusing us of ignoring all other catastophes in the world, and only putting up these links now that America was hit.
And they were completely right.
We didn’t put up such pleas for help when other countries faced crisis, and despite the band’s “let’s all fight The Man together” philosophy, this was an example of a distinct focus on just our own country. However, I wasn’t about to say “okay, we’ll take the link down in the name of fairness; we didn’t help the Bangladeshis so we shouldn’t help anybody”. I just had our webguy add a link for the International Red Crescent so that people could donate to help the New Yorkers, or could donate to another foreign site where help was needed.
But that experience reminds me of Katrina. Some of the first descriptions of the destruction in New Orleans said “it looks like the Third World”. You know what else looks like the Third World? The fucking Third World! Millions of people live like this all the time, and we Americans don’t usually do much about it.
It is my sincere hope that after facing this catastrophe, that Americans might start to look a bit beyond our own shores and realize that other people have it just as bad or worse that the new American refugees, and that maybe, maybe they’ll want to help these other people out as well. I’d like to see global cooperation from people all over to try to improve the lives of people all over. We already can see the tremendous power of well-meaning people getting together to help each other in the new Louisiana floodlands, maybe we can get a broader outlook and try to work with other folks struggling to face other rough conditions.