Natural disasters are often seen as a leveling force, proof that all are Equal in the Eyes of God. This is not what happened in New Orleans last week, when a great many people, mostly poor and African-American, were left to die as a result of a botched preparation and response. Hurricane Katrina gave American institutions a trial by water, and we failed. In the wake of the storm, some rotten elements of our society were exposed — moral callousness, class domination and racism. It turns out America has yet to learn to value its citizens equally.
Hurricane Katrina was a worse disaster than Sept. 11. George W. Bush, whose presidency has been defined by Sept. 11, who has never hesitated to exploit Sept. 11 as a holy shield against criticism, admits this. The attacks of Sept. 11 triggered a day or so of terror, and weeks and months of fear and anxiety, but New York did not cease to exist, nor did the Northeast cease to function as a society. The city of New Orleans no longer exists. The social fabric in the entire region is collapsing, with tens of thousands of people displaced and starving, and more people dying each day.
The federal government’s response to the calamity has been pathetic compared to its swift and overwhelming actions after Sept. 11. In the week after the levees broke, as thousands died, administration officials squabbled among themselves about who should be in charge of the relief effort. “We wanted soldiers, helicopters, food and water,” Denise Bottcher, press secretary for Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana, told The New York Times. “They wanted to negotiate an organizational chart.” New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, infuriated by the meager federal response, cursed and wept in a radio interview last Thursday. Nagin blasted FEMA and Homeland Security: “I have no idea what they’re doing. But I will tell you this: You know, God is looking down on all this, and if they are not doing everything in their power to save people, they are going to pay the price. Because every day that we delay, people are dying and they’re dying by the hundreds.”
Scrambling to recover its image amid criticism, the Bush administration on its end was quick to blame overwhelmed local and state officials like Nagin, who were begging for federal help. Mike Brown, the Bush-appointed director of FEMA, even blamed the victims for the government’s failure. Brown argued that the needlessly high death toll is “attributable a lot to people who did not heed the advance warnings. …I don’t make judgments about why people chose not to leave but, you know, there was a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.” But he actually was making a shocking ethical judgment: If you’re stranded, it’s your own damn fault.
Those who did not evacuate before the storm were mainly too poor to leave. They had no money, no car or no place to go. Others had their flights canceled over the weekend. According to The New York Times, 35 percent of black people in New Orleans had no access to a car, compared to only 15 percent of white people.
Brown’s victim-blaming is indicative of the ugly class ignorance and racism that has marred the Katrina response. It is also a dark insight into the administration’s view of who is included in the American community. This is especially striking when we compare the Katrina debacle to the stunning show of nationalistic unity that resulted from Sept. 11. There is no talk of “America united to overcome evil.” Instead, we get the message that the unlucky residents of New Orleans are simply Not Americans. “We” need not rush to save them. They are an inferior underclass, lacking, in the case of the evacuation order, the common sense to heed the good advice of the government.
Up to now, the government’s botching of the relief effort has been a White Riot in Slow Motion. The government simply failed to help African-Americans and poor people. I believe that feelings of fear and discomfort along lines of race and class played a large roll in this travesty. These fears emerged from somewhere in the national psyche and resulted in thousands of senseless deaths. America is a strong and affluent society; that we were not able to protect or rescue our own is a national embarrassment.
My hope is that the majority of Americans, black and white, rich and poor, share my sense of shame and outrage. I hope that the country will get behind the city of New Orleans: save those who are still stranded, rush aid to the displaced. In the long term, we will need to rebuild and resettle the city, and demand accountability for the system’s failures. We will also need to build a society in which all citizens are valued equally — where we sink or swim as a single community.
Jared Malsin is a junior in Berkeley College.