I still have my husband’s visitor pass for 2 World Trade Center. He had clients on the 34th floor, so he visited frequently. On the morning of September 11, 2001, after the first plane hit, he called to tell me he was safe in his midtown office. He stayed on the phone with me as I sat on the front porch of our Brooklyn apartment to watch, helplessly, as the Trade Center Towers burned and fell. In the weeks following, I walked around in a daze, overwhelmed by the grief I felt for people I did not even know and for the city itself, which seemed strangely animate in the wake of the disaster; like a wounded giant. That the nation rushed to our aid and poured out its heart to us made things easier, but not many outside the city understood how bad it was. (To get a sense of what things were like in New Orleans in the days following the hurricane, I recommend this incredible First Person Katrina Account published on “Democratic Underground.”)
In that context, I’ve been trying to understand the enormity of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, but I can’t even begin to. September 11 seems small by comparison. We didn’t lose our homes. Our city didn’t drown. Our citizens were not abandoned, starved, mistreated, and driven to despair. My heart goes out to these victims whose suffering is exacerbated by leaders who are failing them so profoundly and, in some cases, so willfully. Attempts to deliver food, water, and much-needed relief to stranded survivors were purposely thwarted by armed authorities including the National Guard. (see Boing Boing’s September 9th article Katrina: Authorities bar Red Cross from NOLA; Blackwater gets carte blanche). The Red Cross Disaster FAQ page also has this answer to the question: Hurricane Katrina: Why is the Red Cross not in New Orleans?
• Access to New Orleans is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities and while we are in constant contact with them, we simply cannot enter New Orleans against their orders.
• The state Homeland Security Department had requested–and continues to request–that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane. Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.
• The Red Cross shares the nation’s anguish over the worsening situation inside the city. We will continue to work under the direction of the military, state and local authorities and to focus all our efforts on our lifesaving mission of feeding and sheltering.
• The Red Cross does not conduct search and rescue operations. We are an organization of civilian volunteers and cannot get relief aid into any location until the local authorities say it is safe and provide us with security and access.
The hero worship of 9/11 victims and relief workers, which bolstered morale and lent some humanity to the crisis, is almost entirely absent from the Hurricane Katrina “spin”. Katrina victims suffer the added humiliation of insensitive, uninformed, or blatently racist remarks made by elected officials who are trying to minimize the tragedy, shift blame to the victims, and deny responsibility. These quotes were selected from about.com’s 25 Mind-Numbingly Stupid Quotes About Hurricane Katrina And Its Aftermath
“I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don’t have food and water.” -Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Sept. 1, 2005
“I mean, you have people who don’t heed those warnings and then put people at risk as a result of not heeding those warnings. There may be a need to look at tougher penalties on those who decide to ride it out and understand that there are consequences to not leaving.” -Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), Sept. 6, 2005
“I don’t make judgments about why people chose not to leave but, you know, there was a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.” -FEMA Director Michael Brown, arguing that the victims bear some responsibility, CNN interview, Sept.
“Now tell me the truth boys, is this kind of fun?” -House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-TX), to three young hurricane evacuees from New Orleans at the Astrodome in Houston
We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” -Rep. Richard Baker (R-LA) to lobbyists, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal
“I also want to encourage anybody who was affected by Hurricane Corina to make sure their children are in school.” -First Lady Laura Bush, twice referring to a “Hurricane Corina” while speaking to children and parents in South Haven, Mississippi, Sept. 8, 2005
And this from the Louisiana Senator:
“Thank President Clinton and former President Bush for their strong statements of support and comfort today. I thank all the leaders that are coming to Louisiana, and Mississippi and Alabama to our help and rescue. We are grateful for the military assets that are being brought to bear. I want to thank Senator Frist and Senator Reid for their extraordinary efforts. Anderson, tonight, I don’t know if you’ve heard – maybe you all have announced it — but Congress is going to an unprecedented session to pass a $10 billion supplemental bill tonight to keep FEMA and the Red Cross up and operating.” -Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Aug. 31, 2005, to which Cooper responded:
“I haven’t heard that, because, for the last four days, I’ve been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated. And when they hear politicians slap – you know, thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now, because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there’s not enough facilities to take her up. Do you get the anger that is out here?”
I can sympathize with the incredulity expressed by the writer of yesterday’s post on Daily Kos “The Conscious Decision to Let People Die”. I’m not naíve, I know that poor and middle class people are at the mercy of the rich and powerful and that if the rich don’t feel like helping, nobody can make them. But I was under the impression that some things are sacred, and that in America we don’t take food and water away from starving thirsty people. We don’t abandon our people to certain death, and we don’t sneer at those who are suffering. The way I understood it, American Freedom (with a capital F) had to do with the powerless having at least enough power to demand fair and humane treatment. I thought it meant that the hardworking tax-paying public could expect help in a time of dire crisis. I thought our Democracy had checks and balances to minimize corruption and incompetance. I thought America (even under the current administration) had something to do with being civilized, humane and fair.
I don’t anymore.
(The above has nothing and everything to do with the future of the book.)