TJ | 27th Aug, 2010

Remembering Hurricane Katrina

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On this fifth anniversary of the Katrina disaster everybody is suddenly remembering the event as if the country had just awakened from a long nap to realize what they thought was a bad dream actually happened. Remembering Katrina also reminds us of the disconnect between then and now.

Then Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu was begging for federal help. Now she talks about too much government. Then a lot of Americans were saying government had not done enough; now we have a lot Tea Party types who want government to go away. Then the raw face of racial prejudice had news commentators writing about two Americas; now we have “birthers” and other assorted wingnuts proclaiming the nation’s first African American President is not really an American. Then the cameras were not shy about showing the realities of poverty in America; now politicians at the federal and state levels want to cut aid to the less fortunate.

After Katrina a lot of people said America would never be the same again because what happened was a national embarrassment that played no small role in the Democrats regaining control of Congress and the White House. People were crying crocodile tears about turning this country around, especially the growing gap between rich and poor and black and white that Katrina exposed. There were pledges to fix not only the lower ninth ward but lower ninth wards across America. The market-will-take-care-of-things, less government types seemed permanently discredited.

Five years later Katrina has been smoothed over, with not even a scar remaining for people to ask, “How did that happen?” The trips by politicians and tourists to gawk at the damage have stopped. I cannot remember when I last heard a politician or talk show guest refer to Katrina. Even as the BP oil spill spread across the Mississippi Delta few brought up Katrina.

So as the news media remember Katrina on this anniversary filtered through a lens that has become fogged with time, it is time to remember its realities.

The Missed Warnings

The screen opens in pastel blues and greens that recall a peaceful tropical lagoon with sugar sand and the sleep-inducing sound of gently breaking waves. Then the green takes on that ominous, sickly color the sky does before unleashing its furies, a color that, if you have ever seen it standing vulnerably alone in a wilderness, you never forget along with the plummeting air pressure sucking at your guts. A riot of color breaks out—yellows, oranges, violet, pink—echoing the cacophonous sounds, winds and smells that accompany a storm. Blood red washes over everything so quickly you know no one has time to retreat. It is as if the land has suffered a grievous wound and bleeds uncontrollably.

That was a computer simulation of an event like Katrina, an imaginary storm called “Pam” that was intended to simulate the damage a monster storm would cause New Orleans. This visual simulation would prove to be remarkably accurate.

The major facts were spelled out dramatically to the more than 250 federal, state and local officials representing 50 agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the states of Mississippi and Louisiana who gathered to watch those changing colors model a hurricane hitting New Orleans in the summer of 2004. Katrina would later validate the major warnings: evacuation would be a major problem since an estimated 100,000 households in the area did not have a car; survivors would need 1,000 shelters to remain open for months before it might be safe to rebuild; search and rescue operations would require 800 searchers. At the end of the Pam exercise federal and state efforts pledged “over the next 60 days” to “polish” plans developed during the Hurricane Pam exercise.

Not long after the Pam exercise experts at The National Geographic drew on the knowledge of experts from Louisiana State University who participated in Pam for an October 2004 article with the following scenario, “Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued.”

The bottom line became clear when the real thing hit: the damage caused by Katrina should not have happened. There had been plenty of warning about its potential impact and officials supposedly had planned for it. When Katrina struck, FEMA head Michael Brown pontificated,

Hurricane Katrina caused the same kind of damage that we anticipated. So we planned for it two years ago. Last year, we exercised it. And unfortunately this year, we’re  implementing it.

Shortly after the interview, Brown resigned.

The Pictures

A sense of things turned upside down appeared common during the early days after Katrina blew otherworldly scenes into our living rooms. The Superdome seemed to function like a giant magnet of truth, sucking into one place the poverty that stalked those streets of New Orleans that the tourists did not visit.

Suddenly the faces of poverty stared from the front page. A crowd of African American women huddle around a slumped figure with a white sheet draped over her shoulder. A woman in a head scarf and striped t-shirt extends a hand in comfort, trying to assure the exhausted and overheated victim all will be OK. Behind her another woman holds her hands to her mouth in a mixture of shock and grief while a man near tears watches with two boys whose faces betray their anxiety and confusion.

A second photograph: a large man holding a tiny baby over the shoulder of his football jersey pulls back a blanket to reveal the corpse of an old man as thin as a concentration camp victim slumped in a chaise lounge. Behind him lies the Superdome crowd that became a symbol for this disaster. To the side of the picture a woman walks towards the camera as she shouts at the photographer in frustration. There are no white faces anywhere.

A third picture: an African American woman with her dress draped over her shoulder swims through water colored like a stained glass window by oil, dragging an overnight bag and bottles of water.

A fourth: a young man with his foot in bandages lies on a cot clutching a bottle of water as vehicles drive by without even acknowledging him.

Then we see picture after picture of the crowds. Some huddle on bridges and overpasses that remain above the water, waiting for the rescue that is not coming. Others who have been fortunate to escape lie in makeshift camps that eerily resemble the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression. At times it seems more reporters and celebrities can get into the city than aid workers. Somehow they manage to bring Harry Coniff to the Superdome but they cannot get anyone out. As rescue plans stall somewhere in the ether, the Dome becomes a perverse tourist attraction for media photographers who fly over it and drive around it, but take no one out with them. Treated worse than zoo animals the people make their anger known.

Moved by such scenes George Bush and some Congressional leaders announce they would do something to end the endemic poverty in the areas hit by Katrina. Predictably the far right balked at the price tag, prompting Bush to reassure his allies he would not raise taxes. So five years after Katrina New Orleans sports lots of bandaids, but the larger problem remains.

Those who were able to escape were dubbed “refugees” by some in the media as if they were from some foreign country—which in some sense is true for the places many came from lie outside the consciousness of too many Americans. I wrote in the book Strange Death:

As America continues to absorb the largest forced migration since the Dust Bowl, some    wonder whether it will create a similar economic crisis.

Guess what happened?

Today you need only drive through certain sections of our nation’s largest cities or through dying rural towns and Native American reservations to see sights reminiscent of Katrina. There are even blocks in the suburbs where mushrooming “For Sale” signs and uncut lawns provoke a sense of foreboding.

The Lessons

Almost a century ago people in rural American communities like Lincoln, Colorado, found a way to take care of people in need, but in 2005 America could not take care of people begging for help on our television screens. The grim conditions we agonized over did not appear overnight. They had festered over the years until like a particularly large and aching infection they burst over the country. Katrina not only leveled houses across the Gulf Coast, it blew away the misperceptions, distortions and confusion that had been erected around America.

A month before the conclusion of the Pam simulation, a task force of distinguished academic researchers representing the American Political Science Association (APSA), released American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality, a sobering document with ominous conclusions. One statement particularly evoked comments many made about Katrina. In the section “The Uneven Playing Field,” the task force wrote:

Government is expected to help insure equal opportunity for all, not tilt toward those who already have wealth and power.

The report’s opening pages read like a doctor’s diagnosis:

Our country’s ideals of equal citizenship and responsive government may be under growing threat in an era of persistent and rising inequalities. Disparities of income, wealth, and access to opportunity are growing more sharply in the United States than many other nations, and gaps between races and ethnic groups persist. Progress toward realizing American ideals of democracy may have stalled, and in some areas reversed.

That was written six years ago, yet it could have been written yesterday. If anything in the midst of what the media are now terming the Great Recession, the situation appears worse.

Not only has the inequality deepened, but voices defending it have become louder. The most visible result of Katrina is that it failed to produce a movement dedicated to alleviating the inequalities the cameras revealed; but instead has produced a backlash. It reminds me of 1968 when Robert Kennedy conducted his famous visit to the other America. After Kennedy lay dead in a hotel kitchen the nation voted in Richard Nixon.

Katrina revealed a profound disconnect in America and today that disconnect has become worse. Take a mental level and lay it on democracy’s foundation to see how far the bubble marking the level of the playing field moves off center. Then ponder the consequences. The interesting thing about a tilted playing field is that it constantly drums an incessant “why” into everyone on its slippery slopes.

Katrina’s death toll has seared itself into our memories, but we still face the spiritual death occurring as the playing field continues to tilt. Ultimately, behind everything from the Era of Bad Feelings to Katrina lie two contrasting views of human nature dueling for this nation’s future. On the one side lies the belief that human beings are by nature sinful creatures, a view not unfamiliar to religious fundamentalists, closet Dixiecrats and corporate laissez faire defenders.

This nation faces nothing less than an iron curtain of dogma that threatens to implacably divide us into the equivalent of the Cavaliers and Roundheads who spread blood across the soil of England. The stakes in this civil war have become nothing less than the fate of succeeding generations, for if the playing field tilts too far it will become extremely difficult to level it without drastic action or a replay of the Great Depression.

The most disturbing aspect of the rhetoric of the Raucous Right lies in a thinly veiled contempt for not only their ideological opposites, but also for all Americans. From the premise that people with opposing beliefs are not worthy of respect it is easy to conclude that one can do whatever they want with those they hold in contempt. As Tom DeLay once noted, sometimes sinners need the sword to keep them in line.

In contrast to this vision stands the core belief of Liberal America that people will do the right thing if only given help to overcome the occasional bad luck that befalls them, education to cope with those who would take advantage of them, information that is predicated on fairness, and the right to cast their vote and have it fairly counted.  Democracy is, by nature, a liberal institution, for it is founded on the notion that the collective wisdom of the people serves as a force for good. The level playing field depends on this view. If you believe people are by nature good then you believe they should all have an equal chance.

Five years after Katrina the question remains, Is it true people really do not want to use government to help one another, that in fact O’Reilly is right? Is it survival of the fittest?  Evidence suggests the answer is that we neither yearn for a laundry list of programs, nor do we support a tilt of the playing field.

America has stood at this place before, so if history serves as any guide, sooner or later the frustration will turn in a positive direction. Throughout American history political parties and movements have rallied people around the idea of the level playing field–so if the present political parties no longer stand for these values, another group will.

For me a touching photo from Katrina symbolized it all. It showed a small black child guiding the wheelchair of an elderly white woman. Their hands touched one another in a way that said legions about the American people.

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