Aug 31, 2005

"It's Like Being in a Third World Country"

[UPDATE: Here's a good Slate article (thanks again, A) about some of the reporting bias in the news. It actually turns on a premise that reporters don't talk about race because they're worried about doing it incorrectly.]

I feel the pain of the survivors of hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast. I know that it is an absolute devastation of many homes and lives, and that the suffering of one cannot be put on a scale against the suffering of others. But I think that the relief effort and summary about what this phenomenon actually represents will be very interesting in the weeks to come. I've heard "this is our tsunami" before it hit. I've read eloquent accounts on a neighborhood list serv that equates the flooding and dislocation of tens of thousands of poor blacks this week with that which occurred as a result of the great flood in 1927:

From a historical standpoint if one considers the great flood of 1927 when the Mississippi River breached into southern Louisiana and Mississippi and the population shift that ensued the fabric of the eastern and mid eastern states was altered forever. Quoting from <b>Rising Tide</b> by John M. Barry, "The favorite destination for Delta blacks was Chicago. They brought blues to that city and there the black population exploded, from 44,103 in 1910 to 109,458 in 1920 and 233,903 in 1930. Certainly not all of this exodus came from the floodplain of the Mississippi River. And even within the alluvial empire, the great flood of 1927 was hardly the only reason for blacks to abandon their homes. But for tens of thousands of blacks in the Delta of the Mississippi River, the flood was their final reason."

I'm sure that the racial and class dynamics, of course, will come to bear in the eventual estimation of loss and irreparable damage suffered by Louisianans and Mississippians in this natural disaster. But there's another question here, which comes up again and again. But listen to a quote from a manager at a public hospital in Louisiana:

"It's like being in a Third World country," Mitch Handrich, a manager at Louisiana's biggest public hospital told the AP. "We're trying to work without power. Everyone knows we're all in this together. We're just trying to stay alive."

Aside from the strains of racism and Ameri-centrism that are inherent to the comment, this comment prompts me to think about the peoples of the world who suffered immeasurably after the massive tsunami wiped out more than 200,000 people last December. It reminds me of how the poorest and those with the least access to everything are the ones who get hit the hardest in these scenarios. And the below forward that I received from a friend (thanks A) is quite sobering in that regard:

The following was sent yesterday by Ned Sublette, author of "Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo," who was raised during part of his youth in Louisiana and who recently spent nine months in New Orleans doing research on popular music, history and culture there and their relationship to the rest of the Caribbean.

"Below is an e-mail by a rescue worker that was forwarded to me. I'm leery of forwarding unattributed material because wild tales spread via internet, but this comes from a good source.

I have refrained from any political commentary (in news items that he has sent) thus far, but I will say this, re. the penultimate paragraph:

The poorest 20% (you can argue with the number -- 10%? 18%? No one knows) of the city was left behind to drown. Period. And this was the plan. Forget the sanctimonious bullshit about the bullheaded people who wouldn't leave. The evacuation plan was strictly laissez-faire. It depended on privately owned vehicles, and on having ready cash to fund an evacuation. The planners knew full well that the poor, who in New Orleans are overwhelmingly black, wouldn't be able to get out. The resources -- meaning, the political will -- weren't there to get them out.

White per capita income in Orleans parish, 2000 census: $31,971 Black per capita: $11,332. Median household income in B.W. Cooper (Calliope) Housing Projects, 2000: $13,263.

And now here's the rescue worker, whose name I don't know:

* * *

There are dead animals floating in the water, pets left behind. Surely people thought they would be back to collect the pets. Not so. The rescuers smell like gas when they come back in; there's gas in all of the water that
consumes the area. Fires are burning all over the place. Our teams are tired and they are thirsty and they are hungry. And they have a place to sleep and water to drink and food to eat. I can only imagine how the people without these "luxuries" are feeling right now.

Each night will be a race against time. When night falls, people can't get picked up from roofs, the rescuers can't chop into people's roofs to check the attics for anyone alive or for anyone dead (sadly, there are dead). At night we can't see power lines we can't see obstacles, we can't see any of the things that will bring down a helicopter or pose a danger to boats rescuers.

One of the teams came in today after having been out for hours at a time. One particular rescuer went straight to a corner and collapsed into tears. I went directly to him and just held his hand. What else could I do?

I said nothing. He said it all. They lowered him 26 times and he pulled 26 people to safety. He wants to be back out there but there are mandatory rest periods. His tears are tears of frustration.

Entire teams are working on nothing but evacuating the hospitals. All four of the major hospitals are beginning to flood. Critical patients have to get out or surely they will be lost. Generators cannot run forever; that's just the way it is. There are limited facilities to take those that are rescued and those that need to be evacuated. Anything that leaves by air leaves by helicopter. There are no runways for planes that aren't under water. Only one drivable way in and out.

Water everywhere and more keeps coming. Until they can do something about the three levees that are broken, more water will come and more water will kill. The water poses major health threats. Anyone with even a small open cut is prone to infection. Anyone who touches this water and touches his eyes, nose or mouth without find a way to "clean" himself first will be sick with stomach problems before long. It's bad and it's getting worse. It's not going to be anything better than devastating for days or weeks at best.

I wish I could tell you that I'll check in again soon. I can't. I don't know when my next message will get out. We'll be leaving where we are within just an hour or so.


DesiDancer said...

Thanks for sharing that, rage. It's far more compelling to hear the words of actual people, rather than the puffed up media, describing such devastation.

I absolutely CRINGED when I first heard someone say "this is OUR tsunami..." OMG what is WRONG with you?! I just thought it was a little insensitive. And given the depths of this tragedy, it seems trite to piggyback on another recent devastating tragedy. It would have been more effective to say something original to this situation, not compare.

Rage said...

Thanks DD. I wrote that, though, before realizing the full extent of the damages, and before seeing what's happening on the ground with this disaster, and how the poor black community in New Orleans is at such a terrible disadvantage in this disaster. I'm not sure of how I feel, and again, I feel like you can't compare or contrast the devastation in different places - of course, people didn't fully register what 250,000 people in Asia means, how can we?

But the philanthropic response - something that I have to give a lot of credit for, was amazing. And considering how easy it is to just keep things out of mind (after a busy week at school, the harm in LA and MI didn't really register until I heard it directly from my friends/family).

It reminds me of how I felt the country just moved on after their grief, compassion, and anger concerning the tragedies in NYC and DC in Sept. 2001. I felt like it became more a slogan "remember 9/11/the Alamo!" and call to war (quite literally) than a complex, charged, painful experience that so many of us lived with and dealt with daily for years. I guess that the RNC invocation of the same over and over last year was the last straw for me, because it was so gratuitous. Anyway, the point is, I'm wondering how long folks/ attention will be fixed to this latest tragedy.