The flood of images and reports coming to us from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast over the past week have elicited shock, disbelief, sadness and, to many, a sense of shame. Twenty-five thousand trapped in a putrid, chaotic, partially destroyed Superdome without water or food for five days. Nearly as many fighting for survival in an even more dangerous Convention Center controlled by armed gangs. The sick and elderly, having run out of provisions and medicine, dying by the tens in the stifling heat and humidity. Dead, bloated bodies floating in the streets. Entire families desperately awaiting help on small patches of dry land beneath partially destroyed highway overpasses. Mayhem and rampant looting, sometimes for survival but often opportunistic. And virtually no significant governmental presence for days, just ever-greater chaos.
But in all the images from New Orleans, two details were particularly striking. First, appropriate governmental response was slow and appallingly insufficient. Second, virtually every victim suffering over the hellish week was black — yet blacks account for only 67 percent of the city’s 485,000 residents. Not until the convoys of military and National Guard trucks finally arrived late in the week did our television and computer screens show white faces in New Orleans. It seemed we were viewing the aftermath of some natural disaster or civil war in Haiti or Somalia, where poverty, race, bureaucratic paralysis and social chaos create a deadly combination that magnifies — exponentially — the suffering of the people.
There is, will be and should be much discussion on what went wrong and why. At the same time, the cleanup and rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region hit by Katrina will begin. Already, millions of dollars of aid are pouring in from around the country and the world. Congress has appropriated $10.5 billion in what President Bush termed a “down payment in disaster relief.” Better late than never, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies have mobilized to drain, dry and begin reconstructing this devastated region.
But regardless of the scale or success of the physical rehabilitation that will occur over the coming decades, there is another element of reconstruction that may be even more important: the rebuilding of our social fabric. And not just in New Orleans, but across the nation in places like Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, New York and even New Haven.
The Superdome — with its roof ripped off to expose the thousands of citizens living among growing squalor, violence and desperation — serves as a powerful metaphor. While we Americans support and want to believe in the idea of our nation as a place of equal opportunity and freedom, and while we preach these values to the wider world, the fact is that this veneer is as thin and fragile as the Superdome roof. With the rhetoric and spin peeled away, we are faced with the fact that a great many of our people, but especially those who are urban, poor, black and elderly, are marginalized. They live far off the radar screens of those who have relatively more access to information, money, education and opportunity. Aside from an occasionally close election (in which their vote is courted), or a riot, we do not see them … until a disaster such as Katrina occurs, and their lives are disproportionately destroyed. We who watch this are reminded and shamed.
If we are wise, we will use the devastation of Katrina to marshal resources and people to rebuild our social fabric as well as our physical infrastructure. President Bush should give voice to our collective sadness and shame, and articulate a vision of America that more fully includes the very people we often ignore.
As a resident of the Yale community, you too can have an impact. Give money to support the relief effort, but also invest some of your time, energy and intelligence in helping to rebuild the social fabric of marginalized communities in the “Superdome” around us. There are literally hundreds of organizations that need your help, whether its full time or just an hour a week. The Dwight Hall Service & Advocacy Bazaar on Sept. 13 from 7 to 9 p.m. is a great place to start.
Alex Mcintosh graduated from the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies in May.