Saturday, September 03, 2005

After the Flood

Like many people, I've been staggered and upset by seeing the images of New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. People still trapped in the city and surrounded by flood waters are without food, water, and medicine, let alone sanitation. On TV3's news last night a British camera crew driving into the city were surrounded by a crowd shouting "help!" "help!" and people saying they had no water. A man waved around a three month-old baby yelling that it had no diapers or infant formula. The camera crew were threatened and eventually had to leave.

Another camera crew cruised in a boat through the flooded streets and came to a hospital surrounded by water. They spoke to a nurse who looked close to tears as she described how they had no support, communications, electricity or supplies. People were dying and therewas nothing they could do. The boat picked up a frail-looking man in a hospital gown floating in the water and returned him to the hospital from where they thought he had wandered off. It didn't look like he'd be much better off back in there.

Meanwhile, much of the media coverage has focussed on the looting and disorder in central New Orleans, and the first major federal contribution--four days after the end of the hurricane--was to send in National Guard troops armed with machine-guns. From the sounds of it they're badly needed, with armed gangs roaming the streets, snipers shooting at rescuers and rapes and beatings happening at the convention centre and Superdome where refugees are crowded.

It's a black irony that these are troops who have just returned from Iraq. It's a reminder that without the rule of law, security, food, water and electricity, living in a " democracy" is worth bugger-all. It doesn't matter where you are, civilization is a thin veneer which leaves us about four missed meals away from chaos.

But it's still disturbing to see guys carrying guns, who "know how to shoot, to kill, and surely will", as the advance guard of assistance. While some of the looting is crazed and criminal, it seems clear that most people are just trying to survive. As a television viewer, you feel that the narrative is somehow wrong. "This is the United States", you remind yourself. How can there be people who don't even have any water? Where are the large-scale airlifts of food, water and supplies, the reassuring teams of medics? Not everyone can be evacuated at once, but where are, I don't know, the packages being dropped in, like in Afghanistan? Come on, it's four days after the hurricane. You're left confused and appalled.

CNN's website has some quite good coverage and links--there's a brilliant interview with New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin bemoaning the lack of help, and a comparison of what authoritities say is happening with how people on the ground describe it.

Slate also has a good collection of comment, including a piece on how pretty much everybody still stuck in New Orleans is black and poor. There's also considerable discussion of the missed opportunities to reinforce New Orlean's defences and much lampooning of George Bush's comment that "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

When investigated afterwards, disasters tend to show up a trail of bungles, cut corners, lack of accountability and knocked-back attempts to do something. The weight of blame allocated isn't always entirely fair, since things look much clearer with 20/20 hindsight. In this case, there appears to be have been pretty close to 20/20 foresight, and the Army Corps of Engineers were denied badly needed funding to do work which might have made a difference.

But this still isn't the point. The point is, no matter how badly cocked-up or how inevitable the disaster, you have to get in there and help people affected by it. The other day Bush was on TV, grinning like an idiot (his minders had told him to "look relaxed"?) and saying, "now, I know people would like help to have arrived yesterday", as if such people were impatient children, instead of being infants and elderly dying though lack of clean water and sanitation. Yes, for f*cks sake! Yesterday would have been good; the day before yesterday even better. It's enough to shake your remaining faith in Western civilization.

I don't know how much difference it can make now, but the American Red Cross seems like a good place to make donations.

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Anonymous said...

Faith in western civilization. What a concept.

Before your eyes is the seeming collapse of the neo-Roman empire. Stretched so thin it can't take care of its own domestic affairs.

Frustration from without and frustration from within. How did it go so wrong?

Is there hope?

Yes, but not from faith in the western civilization. It is in the strength of the universal human spirit of some to survive and others to give.

This is a disaster with a following of folly. Now is a time simply to pitch-in and help.

And all the while possibly a bigger storm is brewing.

Cecilia said...

Don't really have anything insightful to say about any of this. It has been deeply distressing to watch it all unfold. I feel like I have survivor's guilt by proxy or something. In Florida we expect it to be us, since we are in the path of most hurricanes and also a pretty wacked out place at the best of times. I can't help feeling a little like they got screwed because we didn't this time.

I passed through New Orleans about 3 weeks ago on my way back from Texas. I spent the evening partying with my friend Ron who I worked with over the summer (who, as a newly homeless refugee, is now coming to live with me for a while so he can transfer to law school at UF). As we drove past stately colonial homes, we were talking about how the gap between the haves and the have-nots is so pronounced there. He said the city was just waiting to explode, but I guess implode might be a more accurate word.

I don't usually like to point fingers at ineptitude and screw-ups when natural disasters happen. It's counter-productive and the culprit is mostly just good ol' human error and infallibility. But anyway, here's my suggestion for going forward: Since, we're so good at building things overnight and "keeping law and order" in other countries, why don't we bring the troops back home to do the same here. I'm sure as hell, the troops would go for it. The Iraqis probably wouldn't be too sorry either. Then we can see heart-warming pictures of little black children playing at their newly built school. Bush can get on TV and say, "The people of New Orleans are free! Thanks to the United States military, the children of New Orleans can go back to school. The people of New Orleans have homes and can walk the streets without fear."

Seems to me like that would be a winner all round.

Claire said...

So I'm flicking through Kiwiblogs, trying to catch up on some news from home, and theres a bunch of stories about Katrina. Being myself resident in the old US these days, I'm intrigued as to what the people are saying, not remotely expecting to find a Bidwell let loose in Blogworld.
So...hows that whole South America thing working out for you Simon?