Monday, September 05, 2005

Evacuations nearly over in NO - Dysentery outbreak - American society under severe scrutiny

New Orleans was finally little more than a ghost town today as evacuations from the Convention Center and Superdome were completed. Tens of thousands were evacuated in less than 24 hours, but help did not arrive quickly enough for the hundreds who lay unseen, dead and dying, in houses all over the city.

News also emerged earlier today that with tens of thousands already dead from the effects of the hurricane and flooding, dysentery has broken out in Biloxi, a town along the coast to the east in the region directly hit by Hurricane Katrina. The water currently standing in all areas of the region is thought to be heavily contaminated with chemicals, sewage, and human waste, and adding to the fears of disease is the knowledge that bodies are inside houses in every street in nearly every neighbourhood.

In Chalmette, one of the poorest districts near New Orleans entirely under water, teams moved from house to house, painting numbers on the outside of each to note how many bodies were inside. The bodies will remain for the time being.

But overshadowing the start of operations in the region were widespread reports of anger and frustration from across America which have significantly transcended economic, ethnic and party lines (that link is to a clip from Fox News, highly recommended as an illustration of the outrage felt).

Particular anger was raised by comments from the Director of the US Homeland Security department, Michael Chertoff, who said that Government planners had not prodicted that such a scenario could occur. In fact, scientists have known for years that the Gulf Coast and New Orleans in particular were certain disaster areas if a category 5 hurricane struck, and that the levee system in New Orleans was only rated to category 3 — a lengthy series of specials was published 3 years ago by the Times-Picayune on that exact subject.

FEMA has also been the target of criticism. As it is the nation’s disaster management body, it is expected to provide preparation and relief before and after a known natural disaster such as this; people are now asking why it did not pre-position supplies in advance of Katrina’s landfall and why, in recent days, it has delayed army supply-drops and civilian boat rescues due to lack of decision-making.

President Bush is also being heavily criticised by all sides for not responding quickly or thoroughly enough to a letter begging for help sent to him by Louisiana’s State Governor on the 28th of August.

It can hardly have escaped the notice of the President and his administration that the vast majority of those who lived in the most low-lying, poorest homes, and who could not afford to evacuate, were black. Many commentators are saying that this fact emerges above all as the most compelling and relevant lesson in the disaster so far:

It isn’t the failure to act in New Orleans that is the story here, it’s the sheer, uninsured, uncared for, self-disenfranchised scale of the poverty that lies revealed. It looks like a scene from the Third World because that’s the truth. It’s a quiet disaster that’s been going on for years — a pudding-basin-full-of-poverty situation.

New Orleans’ newspaper, the Times-Picayune, sent an open letter to President Bush today, pulling no punches on his weak and ineffectual response:

Dear Mr. President:

We heard you loud and clear Friday when you visited our devastated city and the Gulf Coast and said, “What is not working, we’re going to make it right.”

Please forgive us if we wait to see proof of your promise before believing you. But we have good reason for our skepticism.

[...]the people trained to protect our nation, the people whose job it is to quickly bring in aid were absent. Those who should have been deploying troops were singing a sad song about how our city was impossible to reach.

We’re angry, Mr. President, and we’ll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry. Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That’s to the government’s shame.

Every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be fired, Director Michael Brown especially.

In a nationally televised interview Thursday night, he said his agency hadn’t known until that day that thousands of storm victims were stranded at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. He gave another nationally televised interview the next morning and said, “We’ve provided food to the people at the Convention Center so that they’ve gotten at least one, if not two meals, every single day.”

Lies don’t get more bald-faced than that, Mr. President.

Yet, when you met with Mr. Brown Friday morning, you told him, “You’re doing a heck of a job.”

That’s unbelievable.

As all the recovery operations are accelerated and more happens, I will provide further updates. But at present, the White House is also worrying about whether, not how, it can sidestep serious questions about the poverty/race issue:

...some Republicans said the perception among some blacks that the White House had been slow to respond because so many victims were poor and African-American undercut what had been one of the primary initiatives of the new Republican chairman, Ken Mehlman: making an explicit appeal for support among black voters, a constituency that has traditionally been overwhelmingly Democratic.

“Given the racial component of this, and given the current political environment, there certainly seems to be a high level of risk to this story,” said a Republican Party official, who, citing the concern among party officials about the criticism, would only discuss the question on the condition of not being identified.

The week of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans will be remembered as the week in which America’s hidden faultlines were exposed: when race, extreme poverty, racism and crime were revealed not to be the exception but the undercurrent potentially, and for that matter certainly, present in every one of America’s cities. It will be remembered as the week in which the response of a country’s leaders showed that, instinctively, those in power still cater for their own and are ready to spin a disaster; the week in which an American President failed America.

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