Sunday, September 04, 2005

Left Behind
Something has finally come along to distract everyone from the apalling fiasco in Iraq, which is the heartbreaking and humiliating catastrophe on the Gulf Coast, and particularly in New Orleans. The most horrifying part of Katrina and its aftermath is that it could have been and very nearly was much worse. For 24 hours prior to landfall, experts were speculating that New Orleans was going to get hit dead-on with a Category 5 hurricane. Miraculously, the storm turned slightly and lost some of its strength at the last moment, hitting New Orleans with the weaker western half of a Category 4. But it was plenty bad, and the political, economic, and social ramifications of this tragedy will be felt for years.

For starters, Katrina has exposed America's race problem in the most raw and excruciating fashion since the O.J. Simpson trial. The spectre of the poor and predominantly black citizens of the city left behind to suffer through hell on Earth is a stark reminder that racial inequality is still with us, despite the media's total ignorance of it. The Republicans can spin it however they like, and you can place blame on several different levels of government, but here's the reality -- they saw this entirely preventable catastrophe coming, they knew who would suffer and who would not be able to get out of the city, and they didn't do a single thing about it. No one cares about the poor in this country, least of all the viciously anti-city and anti-poor gang of oligarchs and radical fundamentalists in the White House. Time reports on a Times-Picayune series from 2002, which played out a series of disaster scenarios for the city:

It predicted that 200,000 people or more would be unwilling or unable to heed evacuation orders and thousands would die, that people would be housed in the Superdome, that aid workers would find it difficult to gain access to the city as roads became impassable, as well as many other of the consequences that actually unfolded after Katrina hit this week.

Does anyone wonder why they didn't build bigger and better levees or spruce up the evacuation plans? There's a very simple answer - the state of Louisiana is broke, just like nearly every other state in this country, and the city of New Orleans is broke, because Republicans have pursued a deliberate strategy of bankrupting government at every level, what they call "starving the beast." Who needs to protect hundreds of thousands of poor people from an eminently predictable disaster when we can cut taxes? You get what you pay for. Meanwhile the authorities don't even care enough for the wretched masses trapped in the Superdome to brave gunshots to rescue them. National Guard helicopters turned away when they were fired upon, which makes you wonder about our priorities. The jarring contrast of society's most vulnerable and invisible setting up camp in a playground for the rich millionaires' bloodsport of football was quite remarkable.

I am not a racial hysteric. I generally believe that most white people most of the time would genuinely like to live in a society free of racism. But as the now-famous phrase goes, hope is not a plan. Living for four years in Philadelphia has rid me of a number of preconceptions about race and poverty with which I grew up in the suburbs. There are areas of this city that are as dangerous and wretched as nearly any place in the world. And no one cares. The desparately poor -- forget the working poor -- are completely invisible in America. Is it a coincidence that these areas are inhabited almost exclusively by African Americans? Draw your own conclusions. All I know is that if a similar disaster befell Philadelphia, it doesn't take a genius to figure out who would get out of the city and who would be left behind. The thinly veiled racial tension that grips this and most American cities would disappear faster than George Bush's approval ratings. And if you think that 90,000 white people would still be waiting for evacuation from anywhere in this country six days after the worst natural disaster in a century, you're dreaming. And do you think the speaker of the House of Representatives would recommend not rebuilding, say, Orange County? Denny, there's only one thing here that's not worth rebuilding, and that's your bankrupt and incompetent majority in Congress.

What we are seeing now is the result of our ordering of priorities. The voters of this country re-elected a group of people who believe that poverty is a choice, that government is to be relentlessly undermined at any cost, and that spending billions of dollars on an unprovoked war of choice is more important than any social and infrastructrual investments to be made at home. It is the result of pretending that our social problems are solved, that cities should be left to fester and die at the expense of the doomed exurbs. And it is the result of willful ignorance -- of what is going on in our own cities in our names, and of the reality that resources are not limited and that we cannot simultaneously have competent public services, the industrial world's lowest taxes, and Earth's largest military. It is the result of four years of head-in-the-sand, hands-over-the-ears bluster about how global warming is just a myth. You don't think something is going on with the climate? How about this -- 13 years ago, Hurricane Andrew wrecked Florida on August 28th. It was the first hurricane of the season, after just one tropical storm. Katrina was the fourth hurricane and the 11th tropical storm of 2005. It is conceivable that the Gulf Coast could get wrecked again this year. (hat-tip to James Wolcott). But you know, it's all just a left-wing conspiracy theory, right?

Katrina will also be remembered as a massive economic catastrophe. The gas station visible from the roof of my house shows a price of $3.49 for unleaded gasoline, which was enough finally to get me stop driving save for absolute necessities. But the price will only hit the most vulnerable, the working people who live paycheck-to-paycheck and can't afford a 40% rise in the price of gas. And don't look now, but the price of natural gas is getting ugly. You may want to prepare for a winter of shivering in front of space heaters with the rest of your homes closed off. You may also want to consider voting for people who might address some of the long-term supply and demand issues that energy experts have been warning us about for years. No one yet knows what the long-term effect of Katrina will be, or how long it will be until we get our refining capacity back in place. One thing is certain -- those who suffer the most will be the ones held in the most contempt by our rulers.

Above all, it just breaks your heart. Hundreds of thousands are homeless and ruined, robbed of whatever little assets they had in the first place. Thousands are dead. Watching even a few minutes of the coverage makes you sick to your stomach, nervous, and embarrassed, all at once. Go donate, pray, do whatever you can with whatever limited resources you possess.


At 11:30 AM, Blogger Sonya said...

I like your news clips. Visit anytime, And Im always looking for new reads.



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