My initial response, like most of us who follow human tragedy, was one of shock, pity and empathy. From whence, then, comes this wave of anger, this storm surge of emotion seething within me that threatens to overcome my better nature? It comes with the realization that, despite the capricious and uncontrollable nature of the hurricane, the vast majority of the tableau of misery that plays out before us represents an Optional Tragedy.
Examination of the facts that lie in the background, below the din of sensational news headings, reveals a truth irreconcilable with the lofty ideals that we export around the world at gunpoint--these people are dying mainly because they are poor and black. Beyond that, though, and not contradictorily, these people are also dying because of the historic ineptitude and criminal indifference of a Bush administration that has made the Federal Emergency Management Agency a slavish servant of their idiotic ideology.
Optional? Yeah. In the earliest days of the news coverage, reporters and talking heads parroted lines about people who decided to "ride it out," as if the majority of people in the path of Hurricane Katrina truly had a say in the decision. The 2000 Census listed New Orleans' population at 485,000, with 27 percent below the ridiculously low federal poverty level. That works out to about 135,000 people, not counting others who may have slipped below the line during our past five years of prosperity. The median income in New Orleans is $27,000, so half of those 485,000 people made less than that. And that says nothing of the surrounding areas of Louisiana, or of those living in Mobile, Biloxi, or places so remote that they aren't on the national radar.
How many people in households making $27,000 a year can afford to just up and take a few-hundred-miles trip on a couple of days' notice? Unlike a handful of adventurers and some hardheaded veterans of hurricanes past, these people were not trying to ride it out--they had no ride out. Assuming they did have a car in reliable, working condition, could they afford a tank of gas, at over $2.50 per gallon? A hotel stay? Don't kid yourself. They didn't choose to stay, they were Left Behind, like those forsaken by God in the best-selling fictional biblical account of the "end times." These souls were not Left Behind by God, though. They were left behind by their fellow man.
The only "option" exercised was the option of the various city, state and federal emergency management agencies to not provide for their evacuation. There should have been convoys of buses and military transport vehicles before the hurricane, offering transport to safety for any and all citizens. And yet, on Tuesday I was hearing news anchors asking the dim, but by then rhetorical question of "Why didn't they leave?" leaving talking heads and studio experts to explain that economics played a major part, while giving no specifics and allowing unsophisticated viewers to guess for themselves how many were dirt poor versus those who were hardheaded and kinda got what they deserved.
What they should have been discussing was why nothing was done by the government to provide transportation for these people to get them out of harm's way. Hmm ... save that for angry editorialists to hash out in long-assed columns. But I don't really expect much depth from national news media these days, so while disappointing and maddening, it was not surprising. What was absolutely shocking, however, was to hear Michael Brown, director of FEMA, on Thursday evening following a live CNN broadcast from the convention center in New Orleans, speaking, repeatedly, in terms of people who "chose" to stay. Even after the anchor, to his credit, corrected him and mentioned the poorest of the poor status of those Americans living in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, Brown stubbornly or ignorantly continued to use the word "chose" to describe why the people were in the path of Katrina's wrath.
More appalling, however, was that he, the top FEMA official, did not know until hearing CNN's report in the background that there were thousands of people who had been stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center for three days without food or water. You can't even watch CNN? That really inspires my faith in our government's resolve.
The herding of people into the Superdome was an act of desperation, necessitated by the utter lack of a plan to evacuate people who had no transportation from the city. The president, dull-witted as ever, proclaimed on Thursday that "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."
You don't think? I'll buy that. It didn't cross your mind while playing golf on yet another of your record number of vacations. And you must have missed the news I watched, which, following Katrina's deadly romp through Florida, warned that a Category 5 hurricane would destroy New Orleans as we know it by destroying the levee and canal system. The president could also have looked at disaster readiness reports from FEMA in 2001 (pre-9/11), which listed a Category 5 hurricane in New Orleans as one of the three likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country.
Can't recall when you saw that report, Mr. Bush? It was after you appointed a political crony with no disaster management expertise (your former Texas chief of staff Joe Allbaugh) as director of FEMA. And before you downsized FEMA from a cabinet level department and made it part of the Department of Homeland Security. And before you started your optional war in Iraq (which, by the way, is where 35 percent of the disaster area's National Guard troops are).
Putting people in the Superdome was desperate and, by definition, short term. I worried when they said folks needed to bring their own food. But with no running water (i.e., no working bathrooms) and no electricity, let alone AC or food or drinking water, the place became the Terrordome, a brooding, stinking cesspool of people cramped together in ignorance and uncertainty, and increasingly littered with corpses of victims of the colossal ineptitude of the public officials paid to protect and serve them. Even slaves had water and enough gruel to sustain the strongest through the Middle Passage.
We, who can project our military might all the way around the globe, could not get troops there right after the hurricane, and buses and amphibious marine transports to get these people out? Had they done so, and not left some of those Left Behind to play out this sick, Lord of the Flies type scenario (with Wal-Mart guns), perhaps some of these suffering people would not have been doubly and trebly victimized?
I see children on TV screaming "help us" and sad-faced news people zooming by in their vans, footage in the can. I see looped footage of looting, as if stealing T-shirts (or, stupidly, TVs) somehow justifies the treatment of the miserable yet law-abiding masses of people waiting to die in the hot sun--people forced to push their dead grandmothers off into a corner, against a wall, so the stink of her body does not overpower those still hanging on--people who have climbed through roofs and slid through windows with jagged glass, or waded through waist-high filth to have guns drawn on them by cops threatening to shoot them for taking the only available food from stores that will never see another customer. And the many people who have waited for days for buses that did not come and who have dived off of the elevated highway ramps to their sacrificial death on the hard concrete below, on the altar of inhumanity, indifference and misplaced priorities. Hard concrete. Like the hearts of those who say "We're doing all we can" but who expect us to believe that a single gunshot warrants turning around a National Guard helicopter, thwarting these "heroes" from rescuing old ladies and babies on hand-cranked life support when their brethren face far more danger in Iraq, ducking bombs and bullets for no good reason.
They chose to stay? No. "We" chose to leave them, and every death of a person who could have been evacuated before or right after the hurricane was optional. Governors have called this our tsunami as they fly safely over the carnage. No. That is not quite right. Death, in the tsunami, was democratic. The super rich and abject poor alike were swept away with little to no forewarning. No, here, in the world's biggest self-promoting democracy, we had options and, like so many of our policies and politicians on a daily basis, we opted not to give a damn about our poor. And so they died. And we wring our hands about gas prices. Every needlessly dead person's body should be piled at the feet of the irresponsible officials. So they can ponder their options.