U.S. must examine its soul
Date: Monday, September 12 2005
Topic: Eye on Uncle Sam
U.S. must examine its soul
Sep. 10, 2005. 08:11 AM
NEW ORLEANS — The Big Sleazy has turned into a necropolis.
City of the dead and the deadened.
Ghosts with dirty faces stagger about in bare feet and floating, rolling cadavers snag on the upturned roots of pecan trees.
Urban survivalists, some of them mentally deranged but a great many more disoriented and dehydrated after a fortnight of living primitively, lock themselves behind chain-secured doors, unresponsive to and hiding from the forces of law that would drag them from their homes.
A woman called Caroline stands shaking and knuckle-biting fearful on the opposite side of a veranda screen, distrustful of police making inquiries about an abandoned vehicle on the curb, convinced they've arrived to forcefully remove her from the premises. It takes half an hour of reassurances to the contrary before Caroline tentatively opens the door, resigning herself to whatever fate awaits.
Others are cajoled, confronted and pestered into abandoning their toeholds of security, whatever little piece of their antediluvian lives is still represented by a wood-frame house in the middle of a city lake, or a dank and fetid tenement flat in the projects where mothers cook over dangerous fires and candlelight flickers in the window.
Corpses of fellow citizens have been bundled out of the non-sanctuary of the Convention Centre and the malevolent bedlam of the Superdome, presumably transferred to the warehouse-turned-morgue some 110 kilometres west of here, just off the interstate. A vast building, it gives no outward sign of its current purpose.
But the overwhelming number of Hurricane Katrina victims, those who paid the ultimate and too often unnecessary price of a disaster that was conceived far offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, then nurtured into extraordinary lethality by human incompetence and widespread paralysis on the ground, have yet to be reclaimed, almost a fortnight removed from the flooding.
For the appalling tragedy that Katrina became, especially in and around New Orleans, where the levees broke and the floodwaters crested after the hurricane had spent itself on a northward trajectory, an entire nation will have to re-examine its soul.
This didn't just happen. It was allowed to happen by carelessness and the disregard of decades of warning, through successive administrations at all levels of government because Louisiana is a notoriously corrupt state; because Washington doesn't seem to inhabit the same planet as Jefferson Parish and Orleans Parish and Grand Isle and Chalmette and Metairie; because contingency plans were never formulated on a broad basis and evacuation plans never tested on a narrow basis — in retirement homes and downtown hospitals, one of which waited nearly a week for helicopter rooftop rescues; and because, unforgivably, cronyism rather than experience and fitness for the job seems to have elevated certain people to the top of emergency response agencies.
A calamity of this breadth had been envisioned, in recent years, as the result of an overwhelming terrorist assault, not something attributable to nature and coastal erosion, to bridges collapsed by rain, to scores of pumping stations clogged with sludge, to batteries on police radios draining, to Americans looting Americans, to hooligans firing on rescue teams, as if all the notorious hedonism of New Orleans had descended into outright madness.
Twenty-five thousand body bags have arrived in New Orleans. Perhaps, just this once, for the first time in two weeks, the city will have too much of what it needs.
For several horrific days after Katrina hit, there was nothing — no National Guard, no active troops, no FEMA, not even the Red Cross. And before relief efforts were finally co-ordinated, only a small platoon of religious-based volunteers ventured into the city to distribute food and water. In the future, I will be more careful about mocking the overtly faithful and their good deeds.
This country braces itself for the worst now, once numbers can be ascribed to the calamity of Katrina, as if statistics were a more potent gauge of what's transpired than the images and the wailing of these poor, afflicted people. In small doses, U.S. President George W. Bush and others have begun to speak about the human cost of what will likely turn out to be America's greatest loss of life to a natural disaster.
This president, who waited for two days before cutting short his vacation to deal with the inertia of the federal response, did not have his finest hours at a time when leadership was so critically required. With a million hurricane refugees displaced, and cities from neighbouring states reeling under the burden of accommodating the ragtag exiles, Bush could have at least made the gesture, however symbolic, of flinging open the gates to his own vast Texas ranch to show he stood with these dispossessed Americans, just as he stood, four years ago, with the rescue crews who sifted through the debris of the Twin Towers. Instead, despite two visits to the New Orleans area, Bush seemed like he wanted to put "a lot of gone,' as they say down here, between himself and the disgrace of this episode.
This is not how America sees itself — on its knees, in chaos, floundering in an emergency.
This is not how Americans want the rest of the world to see them — inefficient and ignoble, unable to save the lives of children and senior citizens, barely able to control mayhem in the streets of a drowned city, cops turning tail, troops sitting on their duff because they lacked orders to intercede, the governor squabbling with Washington over who would assert authority over the National Guard, tens of thousands of impoverished blacks sleeping and defecating in the streets, reduced to feral creatures, violence and crime following in the wake of the hurricane.
So much moral authority lost in a matter of days by a superpower that aspires to such lofty ideals and a panoramic vision. How can the U.S. impose order in distant and belligerent lands when it can't contain and tidy up a big hurricane's thumping in the Mississippi delta? And, more sordidly even than the finger pointing in Katrina's wake, is the political posturing and partisanship that it has engendered.
The big picture is as murky, as toxic, as the stagnant water that still covers 60 per cent of New Orleans. Here, in the Crescent City, I wonder when a "hurricane'' will ever again refer simply to the tall pink drink served in a souvenir hurricane glass at Pat O'Brien's, a rum concoction part of the iconography of this town.
Randy Newman wrote a song about another hurricane, years back. It's called "Louisiana 1927."
"The river rose all day
"The river rose all night
"Some people got lost in the flood
"Some people got away alright
"The river have busted through clear down to Plaquemines
"Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline.''
"President Coolidge came down in a railroad train
"With a little fat man with a note pad in his hand
"The President say, `Little fat man isn't it a shame what the river has done
"To this poor crackers' land.'''
"They're tryin' to wash us away
"They're tryin' to wash us away.''
They'll be writing mournful bluesy songs about Katrina soon.
Additional articles by Rosie DiManno