B273-DES213

An Unfortunate Addendum: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, And Racism In America
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/27/05

 

  As I begin this addendum on the 1st of October, 2005, little over two months after completing the final draft of Show & Tell: A White Man’s Antiphonal Primer On Race, I am saddened to report that much of what I expounded upon in the book has born some of the strange fruit (albeit in newer forms) that Billie Holiday first song about nearly seventy years ago. The fury of Hurricane Katrina devastated much of Louisiana and Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, but it was not the worst disaster that occurred during those several weeks of late August and early September. No, far more pain and suffering was caused by human incompetence and indifference than that the storm caused.

  As of this writing, nearly 1200 people in both states are known dead (nearly a thousand in Louisiana, over two hundred in Mississippi), with more bodies bound to pop up here and there. That the initial fears of up to ten thousand being dead were wildly overprojected, as are many such claims during disasters, there is a growing sense in the media that things went pretty well during the storm, that the monumental screwups by local, state, and federal governments were not nearly as bad as initially reported. Yet, this is contrasted by the very reaction, a few weeks later, to Hurricane Rita- a larger and more powerful storm, which slammed into eastern Texas and Louisiana. There, with Katrina’s lessons still fresh, literally only a handful of deaths were reported. More people actually died trying to escape the storm, in a fiery blaze on a bus transporting senior citizens with oxygen tanks, than in the hurricane itself.

  No, despite the spin, the overwhelming majority of lost lives, and the untold suffering of those who lost almost everything else, can be placed squarely on the backs of the governmental response, and most of that blame is borne by the federal government. It was the federal government, run by an incompetent crony of President George W. Bush’s, that did not even know that New Orleans survivors were being herded into the New Orleans Superdome. Repeatedly, televised pictures of the scenes of chaos were being broadcast out by the major television networks, yet the Feds claimed they could not get there to distribute needed supplies easily. Even the notoriously pro-Bush Fox Network’s top anchorman Shepard Smith, on September 2nd, reported live on the disastrous condition at the Superdome (where white faces were rare in the tens of thousands of people stationed there), and was at a loss for words, as the military kept the people there penned in, as if at a prisoner of war camp. Now, all that bureaucracy and incompetence is being swept aside, as if mere myths, like the urban legends of rapes, cannibalism, and murders in the Superdome, rampant looting, and even the ridiculous claim that New Orleans cops shot and killed five Army Corps of Engineers in a firefight on a bridge. Yet, who really believed that? During all disasters similar tales flourish. None of the worst of it is ever true, but the incompetence of FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Administration) was all too true, and it eventually forced the resignation of its head- Michael Brown, whose prior job was as the head of the International Arabian Horse Association (from which he was also forced to resign). This came only days after the President publicly congratulated Brown on what a great job he was doing, and after Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security Secretary, and Brown’s boss, said the federal government had done a ‘magnificent job’ of crisis management. Brown got a job with FEMA from an old college roommate, Joseph Allbaugh- the prior head of FEMA, in 2001, and took over the agency in 2003 when Allbaugh quit to work on Bush’s re-election campaign.

  Yet, Bush himself showed incredible ignorance to the suffering of the poor and black, as well as his government’s near-total failure to respond adequately and quickly, and swoop in with a military style rescue operation. On September 2nd, he said, ‘We’ve got a lot of rebuilding to do. First, we’re going to save lives and stabilize the situation. And then we’re going to help these communities rebuild. The good news is- and it’s hard for some to see it now- that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, like it was before. Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house- he’s lost his entire house- there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch.’ Then, the President guffawed. Right Wing partisans were shocked at the callousness of the President’s take. Even one of the most popular Right Wing bloggers, Andrew Sullivan, could not mitigate the statement, and, to his credit, did not try. He wrote: ‘Just think of that quote for a minute; and the laughter that followed. The poor and the black are dying, dead, drowned and desperate in New Orleans and elsewhere. But the President manages to talk about the future ‘fantastic’ porch of a rich, powerful white man who only recently resigned his position because he regretted the failure of Strom Thurmond to hold back the tide of racial desegregation.’ Then, to compound things even further, a few days later the President’s mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush (whom I’ve always liked, preferring the sane Bush women to their men) showed she was as out of touch as her son, by opening her silver spoonfed mouth at the wrong time, and in the wrong way, to National Public Radio: ‘Almost everyone I’ve talked to says we’re going to move to Houston. What I’m hearing is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this- this is working very well for them.’

  Even worse than the callousness of the government’s approach was the fact that there were not enough National Guard troops to swoop in early and restore order and rescue lives in the first few days, mainly because the bulk of the Louisiana National Guard was serving in the war in Iraq, and not serving and protecting their native soil. About 40% of our troops in Iraq, in fact, are National Guardsmen, whose job is domestic defense. This merely helped compound a natural disaster, along with the utter lack of anticipating the flooding that was long predicted, to make it the greatest natural calamity in American history; financially, not in lives lost. The 1906 San Francisco, California earthquake killed about 6000 people, and the 1900 Galveston, Texas hurricane killed between 8 and 12 thousand. While Mississippi was hard hit, there were no major cities on its coast. The same was not true for Louisiana, where New Orleans took an almost direct hit.

  Whole neighborhoods were submerged- mostly poor and mostly black (New Orleans is almost 70% black), for they were on the least valuable lands nearest sea level and the levees that kept Lake Pontchartrain at bay. Then, after nearly 90% of the city was submerged, and that figure was brought down to nearly 10% by continuous pumping, Hurricane Rita’s rains reflooded nearly half the city again. Now, many homes will have to be wholly razed, for deadly mold has gained a foothold, even in those buildings that still have structural integrity. Yet, the Feds are still behind the curve in condemning such homes, preventing owners from returning, and a potential health crisis looms. Add to that skyrocketing oil costs, and the fact that many refineries in Louisiana and Texas are months away from being rebuilt, and the mishandling of this natural disaster could weaken an economy that has been stuck in quagmire mode since 2001. All the lost jobs, due to Hurricane Katrina, could push the country back into recession (formally speaking, although for many unemployed and underemployed the economy has been in de facto recession for nearly five years). That this occurred four years and billions of dollars after 9/11 speaks volumes for the federal government’s inability to protect its citizens- assuming it even gives a damn about the poorest and blackest of them. Had terrorists achieved what occurred in New Orleans, by using anthrax to poison the drinking water, and killing over a thousand people, it would be seen as a success to rival 9/11, considering that we were supposedly ‘prepared’ this time. The real questions are would federal response to a New Orleans terror attack have been different or better? And if so, why? And if not, that certainly isn’t good enough, especially with four years and billions of dollars of preparation. Many terrorists who thought we had protected ourselves after 9/11 must be absolutely slavering over the destructive possibilities that this man-made disaster exposed. Either way, this has damaged President Bush politically- the only place that ever gets his attention, and shown him deeply out of step with mainstream Americans. His approval ratings are at all-time lows for him (about 40%), and only President Nixon- at the depths of Watergate- tracked lower. Part of this fact is because, for years, New Orleans was seen as a disaster waiting to happen. In 2000 and 20001 computer models were showing that a hurricane even less devastating than Katrina could flood the city to the levels that occurred. A 2001 article in Scientific American touted a coming New Orleans disaster. A local government agency- the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project (SELA), was given authority to protect the port, refineries, and population. Then, when the war in Iraq started, funds to SELA were diverted to the war. In 2004 and 2005 the New Orleans Times-Picayune published nine articles warning of the loss of hurricane protection to New Orleans, due to the war in Iraq. By some accounts, the Army Corps of Engineers had only about 20% of the funding necessary to properly secure New Orleans’ levees in case of a hurricane. All of this was ignored, as well as much money being squandered by state and local governments on pork barrel projects that were used to build what are now recognized as poorly designed and insufficient levees. Also, money unwisely cut in disaster preparedness, to fund a pointless war, will now be spent manifold times over to repair and rebuild the city.

  These last facts about local waste, along with the urban legends of the Superdome, have been used by Right Wing partisans to, on the fly, revise history, and exculpate President Bush and the federal government from any blame, declaring they were not going to play the ‘blame game’ (a familiar tactic those who are to blame use), even as it took days for Bush to cut short his regular itinerary of speechmaking and fundraising (such as a VJ day speech in San Diego) to address the New Orleans disaster- reminiscent of his failure to speak out after the Red Lake Chippewa Indian Reservation shootings. Yes, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (an ex-cable tv executive) botched much- and Nagin even contributed to misinformation at the Superdome, and both are Democrats, but another Democrat- Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu- had a bill in Congress for years, to help fortify New Orleans’ defenses, but it was shelved by the Republican controlled Congress in favor of pork barrel politics, as the near-death of New Orleans was in large part brought on by the federal government’s incompetence and reckless war in Iraq. It is the President who declares disaster areas and orders in FEMA and the National Guard, not the local governments, who were all told help was on the way and that the Feds were in charge. The federal government is always the last line of defense, and, as it did on 9/11, it ignored warnings of disaster, and utterly failed its citizenry. And this time, with no bad guys to rail against, President Bush was not given a halo to gloss over his many palpable flaws as a leader. Even the notoriously conservative New Hampshire Union-Leader newspaper, on August 31st, severely criticized the President. By September 12th the manifest failures forced Michael Brown to quit FEMA (although he later cravenly passed the buck when later called to testify at Congressional hearings), and a day later President Bush assumed responsibility for his and his administration’s failed actions for the first time in his Presidency. Bush always said his real test of leadership would be to see how he did on his first post 9/11 crisis. By his own reckoning, he is an unmitigated failure, not to mention the luckiest man on the planet in the fact that his reelection campaign was last year, and not this year.

  The height and scope of that failure reached its height on NBC’s Meet The Press, on September 4th, when a local New Orleans parish leader openly wept over the federal government’s incompetence, claiming that bureaucracy had committed murder, and needed to be held accountable. This all came about not because of the perfect storm of Hurricane Katrina, but a near perfect confluence of the worst aspects of American society: racism, poverty, skepticism, militarism, elitist greed, pork barrel politics, partisanship, environmental abuse, and political corruption. Not to mention the poor foresight and planning of the Iraq War, when the generals begged for far larger American forces needed to quickly pacify that nation, only to be denied by the out of touch President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. A graphic illustration of their folly comes from the fact that 40,000 military men alone could not contain post-Katrina New Orleans, and only four times as many were expected to occupy a hostile Iraq. That initial error in planning led directly to the call up of state National Guards to fill the shortfalls, which left disaster preparedness in a state of near-emergency before any disaster hit. Ironically, the New Orleans fiasco could be the Tet Offensive for this war’s gathering Anti-War Movement. Some Iraqis have even openly proclaimed the disaster was karma for the 120,000 or so innocent Iraqis killed in our occupation.

  The media, as well and usual, was horrible in response to the disaster. Just as they abdicated their responsibility to vet the facts before President Bush led us into the Iraqi quagmire, they now disseminated false and misleading pictures of the aftermath of Katrina. When the poor and dispossessed were seen scavenging for food in local stores the whites were almost always labeled as ‘survivors’ who were ‘desperate’ and ‘struggling to survive’. Their black counterparts, however, were ‘looters’ who were ‘venal’ and ‘looking to get whatever they could’. Although supermarkets and department stores were equally pilfered, photographs printed in newspapers showed whites hauling away staple foods and bottled water, while blacks were shown hauling away DVD players and electronics. I even pointed out to my wife, Jessica, as we watched the reports one evening, that in a scene that showed blacks and whites scrounging, the media would show the blacks taking the non-essentials and the whites taking the essentials, even though there were many scenes of whites loading up on plasma tv’s and blacks hauling away powdered milk, and the folks who were actually stealing things were miniscule in number- just like the urban legends about the Superdome’s atrocities. Yet, the media deliberately tried to fix that image of black predation into the nation’s collective unconscious. Why? This sort of query is the raison d’ętre of this book.

  But, it was not just the images that divided the segregating coverage of the disaster. Consider these two (of dozens) examples. Many poor (mostly black) had no financial means to leave the city. They owned no cars, and could afford no transportation out of the city on buses nor trains. Yet, they were chided as arrogant and foolish- bad traits, and called ‘those who chose to stay behind’. Their suffering was thus seen as somehow mitigated by their own stubbornness or arrogance. Who feels like helping such foolish people? They got what they deserved, right? Many whites were openly derisively asking at water coolers and in chatrooms, Why didn’t those stupid, lazy niggers leave when they were told to? The rich and mostly white, of course, could flee. They were portrayed as smart and cautious- good traits. This comparison came from mostly the bilious Far Right. In fact, in a September 3rd article called Racial Reality And The New Orleans Nightmare, syndicated columnist Steve Sailer, whose byline is carried in many conservative publications, wrote:What you won’t hear, except from me, is that ‘Let the good times roll’ is an especially risky message for African-Americans. The plain fact is that they tend to possess poorer native judgment than members of better-educated groups. Thus they need stricter moral guidance from society.’  What is remarkable is that the man does not see his own racist claims vitiate their own arguments. Why, exactly, are blacks, on the whole, less educated than other groups, unless they are denied education by others? And if their judgment skills are ‘native’, how can any education ever alleviate them?

  Almost as galling and plainly stupid was the Far Left’s noxious attempt to falsely portray one of the few things the media got right- calling those who lost their homes ‘refugees’- as racist, while ignoring all the other, more tangible examples. How in the hell is it racist to call those seeking refuge ‘refugees’? If anything, the labeling helped demonstrate how uncaring the federal government was, as well as being 100% accurate. By denying reality the Far Left only further played right into the Far Right’s hands, and allowed them to discredit much of the legitimate complaints against the government’s poor response. What utter hubris- that Americans couldn’t be refugees. As if we’re somehow immune to the sufferings of mere mortal nations! Regardless, the very nature of these phrasings was designed to damn the poor and praise the rich. There was the implication that laziness or shiftlessness (two racial code words deeply embedded in the American psyche) played a part in the suffering of the poor. There was not even a real attempt to understand the isolation and immobility of the poor, sick, and helpless. For decades the well-funded corporatized Right Wing in this nation has successfully bullied and co-opted even the mainstream media into deliberately dumbing down its coverage of real news. Can anyone imagine Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite succumbing to such stereotyping or government spin? Where are the old fashioned CBS News documentaries that expose such waste, malfeasance, corruption, and general incompetence?

  They are gone, replaced by airbrushed newsreaders who cheer on needless wars- even ex-CBS News anchorman Dan Rather (supposed bane of the Right Wing, and emblem of the laughably labeled ‘Liberal Media’) was gung-ho about the war in Iraq. There has been a systematic campaign of mis- and disinformation, designed to parse people down from collective units that could rise up and challenge the corporate hegemony, and into atomized individual consumer-driven drones whose skewed views of reality are trained not to look deeply and dispassionately at big issues like global warming, war, economic stability and fairness, and the future of democracy, but at little emotionally overwrought issues that affect only small portions of any given population at any time: abortion, animal rights, creationism, school prayer, drug legalization, pornography, the war on terror, Social Security ‘reform’, gay marriage, welfare, etc. Not that these are not legitimate issues, but they are not things that most people will ever have to deal with in their lifetimes, nor do they affect day-to-day living. They are easily controlled ‘distraction issues’ that dominate headlines while the underfunding of a major city’s defenses are not only ignored, but not even raised high enough on the cultural totem pole to be ignored.

  Perhaps the most important of these supposed ‘non-issues’ is the fact of whether New Orleans should be rebuilt and/or rebuilt as it was, and whether people should even live on dangerous lands such as floodplains, fault lines, or the Gulf Coast. Why does the federal government rebuild such areas, and not banish them from legal use? Surely, far more public good is served, financially and civically, than in keeping drug use or gay marriage illegal. While most experts agree that global warming has caused a rise in the frequency and severity of many natural disasters, the economic loss caused by Hurricane Katrina is largely due to development on lands that should never have been developed, due to their vulnerability. And, as long as there is development, there will be jobs that the poor will flock to, and more poor left vulnerable to the twin ravages of natural fury and man-made incompetence. While New Orleans could be a harbinger for the future of coastal cities globally, requiring massive superdam projects, like those in the Netherlands, it is incompetence, in fact, that is the white elephant in to room concerning this President. Even his staunchest supporters, when the glare of cameras are gone, ridicule the man. This is not partisanship, but reality, for his brother, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, was widely and rightly praised for his handling of the disastrous 2004 hurricane season which sent four hurricanes his state’s way, in stark contrast to the failings of the President, the Louisiana Governor, and New Orleans Mayor.

  What is needed in the months ahead is real leadership, not just the typical Bush solution of tossing money at problems. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop the oil companies, like ExxonMobile, that made over $25 billion in pure profit last year, from gouging consumers. They need to take a financial hit for the good of the nation, and not just toss a few million dollars into the coffers of the Red Cross, then rip off the public. Also, vampiric corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel need to be kept out of the trough of money tossed around to fix the Gulf Coast, to allow jobs to go to local companies who will employ the local poor who remain and come back, so not to have the taxpayers’ money siphoned out of that region. There needs to be an effort to curb the simony of credit card companies, as well. Last year’s Florida hurricanes sent tens of thousands of Floridians into debt, as they charged many necessities while waiting for government relief. When much of that didn’t come, and insurance companies let homeowners swing, many people were forced into bankruptcy. The toll from Katrina could be many times worse. Part of the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast should include real credit card debt forgiveness, as we do for many poor nations, and not the ill-conceived and never implemented idea of giving out $2000 debit cards to all victims.

  Yet, the most shocking thing about the disaster is how utterly cut off from reality many people are. Despite the evidence of their own eyes, polls have shown that almost 70% of white Americans believe that racism was not a factor in the too little too late relief effort of the Bush Administration, while nearly 80% of black Americans feel it was. I have attempted to show, within this book, the many reasons for why such a schism exists, but in the face of such manifest evidence, it astounds me still that such a large number of white people can be utterly obtuse and out of touch with reality, i.e.- clinically psychotic. Yes, racism was a major role, but it was not the easy, conscious racism of the White Supremacist, but the far more dangerous sort- like that of the corporate racist I have limned. Ask yourself these sorts of questions- what if the disaster was a tsunami or volcano that devastated Seattle, or a flood of the Mississippi River that swamped the Twin Cities, or a biological attack on Salt Lake City, to use three overwhelmingly white metropoli? Imagine desperate mothers with little blond babies outside the Mormon Cathedral, or the Metrodome as a pigsty where Nordic types were herded in like swine. Would any President have congratulated the FEMA director? Were tsunami victims wandering dazed through Seattle, and taking diapers for their babies and food for their children, would they have been called animals, scavengers, looters, with shoot to kill orders issued? Would it have taken the President five days to tour Minneapolis? Would Seattleites have been chided for living so close to the sea? And why was 9/11 seen as a time of valor, while Hurricane Katrina a time of squalor? The differences were stark- most of the 9/11 victims were white, and/or upper class- and power centers like New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. will always get inordinate protection and priority. The rest of the country, like the poor in New Orleans, must realize they have to protect themselves, because the federal government is not going to do much. To deny this reality is part of the problem of why there was such a large problem in New Orleans.

  Whether or not President Bush nor his administration are actively racist utterly misses the point- the results of their actions are racist, regardless of their intentions. Whether or not the President doesn’t care about black people, as one black rap star opined on national television, is also beside the point. The truth is he doesn’t care about poor people, period. His base, as so famously captured at a fundraiser in Michael Moore’s pseudo-documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11, is the haves and the have mores. The real question is why so many blacks are so poor, and I have illuminated some of those reasons within this book. Back in the 1960s and 1970s median black family income rose over 50% (from execrable lows, granted) as a black middle class was forming, and the rate of black poverty fell from 55 % in 1960 to 27 % by 1968. And many other economic indicators pointed to the imminent economic mainstreaming of blacks, as, by the late 1970s, starvation was almost wholly eliminated in this country, as LBJ’s War On Poverty was bearing fruits. But, that was all sabotaged by his own disastrous foray into Vietnam, Nixon’s continuation of it, and his own Watergate scandal, and Reagan’s assault on the poor. Wal-Mart, rather than General Motors, became the symbol of an American economic triumphalism that made nothing of value, and valued nothing made, unions frittered away their slim gains under incompetent leadership, and the Democratic Party abandoned the shrinking middle class to become Republicans Lite. While Republicans proffered only bad ideas and solutions, the Democrats were utterly intellectually bankrupt, offered no new ideas, nor vision, became a wholly reactionary party, almost as intolerant of dissent and small-minded as the Republicans. As a result, real, substantive public discourse dried up, as the media, too shirked its responsibilities.

  Nowhere was this more clearly delineated than in post-Katrina New Orleans. Instead of the media asking why all those poor (and mostly black) people were looting they should have asked why were all those poor people left for days without food and water because they had too little means to evacuate. It’s these small turns of out of touch coldness that, in toto, do far more damage than any thousand crosses burned on lawns, or any of the racebaiting stupidity of the Far Right- as demonstrated by Sailer’s column. Do that 70% of white people who think race played no part in the New Orleans problems never ask themselves ‘How many times will blacks be first and most to suffer whatever ills come this nation’s way?’ Will America ever finally deal squarely and fairly with racism- the issue it never wants to deal with, but always deals us in?

  I hope so, for as Henry David Thoreau said in his Familiar Letters, ‘As to how to preserve potatoes from rotting, your opinion may change from year to year; but as how to preserve your soul from rotting, I have nothing to learn, but something to practice.’ America needs to stop thinking it, alone, is, or has, all the answers. Only then can it practice what its Constitution has so long guaranteed.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Literary Vision website.]

Return to Bylines

Bookmark and Share