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Thursday, September 01, 2005

New Orleans musings

To interrupt for a moment the tone of snide idiocy I generally propogate on this blog, I wanted to offer a quick thought on the worsening tragedy unfolding in New Orleans. With every hour that passes, it becomes more clear that we are witnessing something more than just a hurricane and its related damage; we are seeing the complete devastation of a major American city and a profound cultural event.

Any storm that can savage the hulking, implacable concrete structure of the Superdome with only wind and water is certainly a force to be reckoned with, and Hurricane Katrina's assault on the Gulf Coast was truly breathtaking in its destructive ferocity.

But perhaps even more terrifying than the violent decimation of the Mississippi coast has been the slow, frighteningly casual unraveling of lives in front of TV cameras in downtown New Orleans.

Today, days after the hurricane swept through, people are still trapped on rooftops awaiting rescue. Some are living on rooftops by choice to escape the savagery of the roving groups of looters and armed gangs. Thousands of people at the Convention Center and elsewhere have gone days without food or water and are slowly dying in full public view. Crowds of people are withering away without the necessities of life and giving up hope for their survival.

The process is heart-breaking and terrifying - families panic as their loved ones slip away from life, and onlookers place blankets over the recently dead. Parents have no way to feed their babies, and the whole scene is unfolding in a public place, in throngs of hundreds or more people, in many cases in front of TV cameras and reporters.

No doubt access to the flooded city is still difficult; but if TV crews can gain access to the scene to bear witness to people withering away with hunger, dehydration, and a lack of needed medication, why haven't aid workers arrived on the scene en masse with pre-packaged food, pallets of bottled water, and insulin? We are now days after the initial crisis, and the needs are known - where are organized caravans of private vehicles to evacuate survivors to an area with the necessary infrastructure? If the government and the non-profits can't help the survivors meet their most basic needs, why hasn't the private sector stepped in to save the day and generate positive buzz? Why hasn't Pizza Hut sent helicopters or trucks with hundreds of pizzas and a crate of Diet Cokes?

I hate to second-guess crisis response, since the scale of the devastation is beyond imagining and it's not an easy thing to organize relief efforts, but it's not as if the thousands of refugees at the Convention Center are a surprise. Over the past few days, the New Orleans mayor has been calling for refugees to meet at the Convention Center for aid. Heck, I knew that was a major aid point. No aid of any kind has since materialized there, and the mayor is now begging for help from the outside world to keep the gathered thousands of remaining citizens in his city alive.

In a stunning example of the short-sighted beaurocratic mentality at its best, over the past four years (since FEMA called a hurricane hitting New Orleans one of the "three likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country"), FEMA's focus was reassigned to response and recovery, not preparedness; FEMA denied Louisiana's pre-disaster mitigation requests last year; and funding for the New Orleans District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was cut by $71.2 million this year.*

I'm not trying to make a political statement here, and I think the attempts by some to make partisan points on this topic are tasteless and missing the larger picture. There's only so much you can do when an entire city sits below sea level and a Category 5 hurricane levels the protective levee system.

But the dissipation of the hurricane should have marked the beginning of the difficult recovery, not the deepening of a humanitarian crisis in which we are watching death and despair march increasingly among crowds of people waiting in a public place for help. The TV cameras can get there - why can't food, water and medication?

In the end, the overriding impression is that no matter how far we've come as a species in terms of technology and infrastructure, no matter how secure we are in our hubris, we are still pitiful and helpless when confronted with truly epic forces and events.

For the best, though heart-breaking, coverage of the crisis, check out the New Orleans Picayune, which is still publishing reports online.

* I read this on the Internet, so it must be true.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Karen said...

Well said, Chris. I've never seen such utter desperation. Let's hope and pray these people get the help they need and SOON.

7:42 AM

 
Blogger Senihele said...

I simply don't care at the moment who's at fault, who dropped the ball or where the clog is. I just want to see these poor people taken care of. Later we can determine if there's blame to be placed on anyone, altho the slow response is heart breaking and I find myself asking the same questions you've written. I don't understand WHY it's taking so long.

The birthplace of dixieland and ragtime may never be the same.

4:39 PM

 

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