Catastrophe in New Orleans – The latest wakeup call for the “world’s last superpower?”


"It only took him (Bush) four days to make a plan…. Unfortunately it is a faith-based plan that includes getting two of every animal on a big boat." – Bill Maher

Anarchy reigns. Armed thugs roam the city looting, raping and killing. Hundreds of cadavers lie rotting in the streets. The elderly and infirm are left to slowly expire in hospitals and nursing homes. Citizens are herded through contaminated waist-deep water into coliseums where there is no electricity, no security, no waste disposal and little food or water. No, this is not Haiti, Darfur or Fallujah. This is New Orleans, a city destroyed and its citizens scattered to the four winds by the ineptitude of city, state and federal government officials; at least a decade of criminal neglect of its infrastructure; and dereliction of duty by our highest elected officials, including the president.

Our trust in government – already severely weakened by the spectacle of members of both political parties greedily gorging themselves at the trough of big business – has taken a hit from which it may take longer to recover than the reconstruction of the city of New Orleans itself.

I watched a lot of CNN, MSNBC, PBS and even a little FOX cable news in the week after Hurricane Katrina struck, sickened by the unfolding events in New Orleans, yet unable to turn away. Here in the United States of America, poor (mostly black) folks had been left behind in the wake of the worst natural disaster in this nation in the last century. They were hungry, thirsty and they were dying in front of our eyes while the whole world watched.

As the usually well-groomed, detached reporters lost their cool and broadcast the human suffering in excruciating detail, the façade of American exceptionalism, of our superpower status, of our credo that "all men are created equal," was ripped away, exposing the underclass, the 37 million people who perform behind-the-scenes tasks, who aren’t sought-after consumers, who have few spokespeople, and who are thus typically invisible. But no more.

A cavalier government reaction
Questions arise about the response of our government institutions. In a nation with as many resources as ours, why weren’t the 150,000 or so folks – the poor, the sick, the elderly who did not have the money or means of transportation to leave New Orleans – evacuated by bus when the order went out? It was clear that this was a powerful storm, a Class 4 hurricane with 140-mile-per-hour winds that would make landfall in the early morning on Monday, August 29.

The director of the National Hurricane Center briefed President George W. Bush, former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Mike Brown and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on the storm’s potential deadly effects before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. They were all fully aware that a storm surge capable of overtopping levees around New Orleans was possible and that disastrous flooding could result. Why then did it take until Friday for the federal government to begin to secure the area and initiate effective relief efforts? Why did it take the vacationing Bush two days to even mention the disaster and four days to get to the scene?

These questions are still being debated around the water coolers, in churches, on the airways, over the Internet and just about everywhere else in this country and abroad. David Brooks, conservative columnist for The New York Times, had this to say on PBs’ News Hour on Friday, September 2: "I think it is a huge reaction we are about to see. I mean, first of all, they (the government) violated the social fabric, which is in the moments of crisis you take care of the poor first. That didn’t happen; it’s like leaving wounded on the battlefield."

Another thing. I’ve talked with some people who seemed more concerned about the breakdown of law and order and the looting than about the human suffering. But I wonder: What would you do if you’d been deserted in a city (80 percent of which was underwater) and left to your own devices? This law-abiding citizen would have done what was necessary to take care of myself and my loved ones. And if that meant breaking into Wal-Mart or a grocery store for food, water and other essentials, you can bet your ass that I would have been right there.

Besides, hadn’t the social contract really been broken long ago? Those left behind in New Orleans knew they were on their own before Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of their homes. But there is no denying it by anyone now, except those who, for whatever reason, refuse to see.

"What those who are afraid of civil society breaking down don’t realize
is that civil society has already broken down! This is not a civil
society we live in, but a profiteering, every-man-for-himself,
oligarchy. The democratic process is broken, if not rigged; the largest-ever
redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich occurred over the last
six years under the guise of economic stimulus; fear and disinformation
were used to put the poorest of Americans onto a battlefield under false
pretenses; those who seek to engage the current administration in meaningful
dialogue are terminated."
Douglas Rushkoff’s weblog

Successful responses to other hurricanes
About a year ago, a Category 5 hurricane hit Cuba with winds of up to 160 miles per hour. In advance of the hurricane, 1.5 million people were safely evacuated, and despite the destruction of more than 20,000 homes, not one Cuban citizen died.

In contrast, our national governmental agencies – the Office of Homeland Security and FEMA – looked like the Keystone Kops, fiddling around before the hurricane struck and trying to decide who was actually in charge in its aftermath – while people suffered extreme deprivation and died. The estimated deaths could likely have been avoided entirely with the expeditious implementation of the existing city and state evacuation plans. And the number of deaths could have been extensively reduced by a more rapid and effective response by the only government equipped to handle a four-state emergency – the feds.

Our government at all levels is complicit in these deaths. Nonetheless, the buck stops with George W. Bush, who, when he finally did first appear, was uninspiring, disingenuous and virtually incapable of communicating any real concern for those so deeply affected by the storm at his various staged photo ops in the afflicted region.

"Out of the rubbles of (Republican Sen.) Trent Lott’s house – he’s lost his entire house – there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch." – George W. Bush while touring the devastated Mississippi coast

"One million people have been displaced in affected areas as the finger-pointing continues – local agencies blame the federal government, the feds blame the locals. It is obvious that a potential disaster of this magnitude required timely, effective, focused action from the highest government in the land. After all, it had done so in Florida just prior to the 2004 presidential election." (- Billmon’s weblog [])

It’s instructive, on that score, to compare the current response to Hurricane Katrina (in which the Three Stooges apparently have seized control of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in a bloodless coup) with the administration’s efforts on behalf of the voters of Florida following last year’s triple storms – Charley, Frances and Ivan.

True, the 2004 disasters didn’t completely take down a major metropolitan area by turning its urban center into a bowl of soup. But the difference in the federal government’s performance before, during and after those storms had passed is still rather striking. It appears there’s something special about years divisible by two – and particularly every other year divisible by two – that can inspire amazing feats of bureaucratic energy and competence, at least in large, populous swing states.

Recall the effectiveness of last year’s relief efforts in Florida, as reported by the St. Petersburg Times on Aug. 17, 2004:

"Gov. Jeb Bush sought federal help Friday while [Hurricane] Charley was still in the Gulf of Mexico. President Bush approved the aid about an hour after the hurricane made landfall. By Monday afternoon, the cavalry seemed to be in place…. Cargo planes were shuttling FEMA supplies from a Georgia Air Force base to a staging area in Lakeland, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had shipped 11 truckloads of water and 14 truckloads of ice. The first assistance checks to victims were to be shipped Monday night."

As I’m sure you can imagine, this display of the good old American can-do spirit didn’t go unnoticed by the people of Florida – nor did the millions of dollars in disaster relief and damage insurance checks that were cut by various federal agencies with record speed. FEMA officials must have been deeply gratified to see the effect their heroic efforts had in the place where they were most desperately needed – Bush’s poll numbers. – Billmon’s weblog []

A nation asleep at the wheel
But as horrible as the tragedy in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast is, we have awakened to a reality that is even more shocking: the fact that there is an underclass in this country that isn’t regarded a great deal differently than the blacks and coloreds were in South Africa’s system of apartheid before it was abolished. From 1990 to 2003, salaries of American CEOs increased 313 percent, while hourly workers’ average wages increased 1.7 percent. Congress provides its members generous health care coverage, while more than 45 million Americans have no health care insurance at all – and approximately 100,000 citizens die annually due to lack of needed care. The infant mortality rate in the America in 2002 was 7.0 per 1,000 live births, while infant mortality rates for black babies during that same period was 14.4 per 1,000 live births. (By the way, Denmark, Japan, Norway, Iceland, Singapore and Sweden have reported fewer than four deaths per every 1,000 live births.)

Anyone who thinks we live in a nation of the people, by the people and for the people is asleep, in denial or mentally defective. We live in a nation of the corporation, by the corporation and for the corporation. It doesn’t matter if we elect Republicans or Democrats. Both parties serve the same master.

If we want to debate looting, maybe we should consider the looting done by Ken Lay at Enron, the looting by Halliburton in Iraq and the looting by the big oil companies at the gas pumps. And we might also want to consider the looting of our national treasury by the president and the Congress, taking our tax money and pumping it into the military/industrial/congressional complex to the tune of $437 billion a year (almost half of annual military expenditures by every nation on earth) and into other pork barrel projects while the infrastructure of this nation, including the levee system around New Orleans, falls into disrepair, our schools lack the necessary funds to do the job intended for them, and the sick, elderly and poor are pushed into the shadows. All of this while we go about our automatic daily routines of buying crap we don’t need, chugging a few cool ones, popping some feel-good pills, numbing our minds with the drivel on TV and supporting self-serving politicians who have somehow convinced us that everything will be OK as long as they’re in Washington to protect us.

"No one is suggesting that mayors or governors in the afflicted areas, nor the federal government, should be able to stop hurricanes. Lord knows, no one is suggesting that we should ever prioritize levee improvement for a below-sea-level city, ahead of $454 million worth of trophy bridges for the politicians of Alaska.

"But, nationally, these are leaders who won re-election last year largely by portraying their opponents as incapable of keeping the country safe. These are leaders who regularly pressure the news media in this country to report the reopening of a school or a power station in Iraq, and defies its citizens not to stand up and cheer. Yet they couldn’t even keep one school or power station from being devastated by infrastructure collapse in New Orleans – even though the government had heard all the "chatter" from the scientists and city planners and hurricane centers and some group whose purposes the government couldn’t quite discern…a group called The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"And most chillingly of all, this is the Law and Order and Terror government. It promised protection – or at least amelioration – against all threats: conventional, radiological or biological.

"It has just proved that it cannot save its citizens from a biological weapon called standing water. – Keith Olberman, host of MSNBC’s Countdown

Awakening and taking action
As ghastly as it was, Hurricane Katrina was merely a shot across the bow unless we get our houses in order – our own personal houses, as well as the state of our nation. For we cannot merely point our fingers at our nation’s leaders. We must also look at our complicity. Our hearts have been opened by this terrible tragedy, and there has been a generous outpouring of compassion and for the poor and afflicted of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama (and good for us for doing so). But where were we when the safety net for the poor was being dismantled during the Clinton presidency? Where were we when thousands of blacks and Hispanics were refused the right to vote in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, because they were erroneously listed as felons? Where were we when funding for Medicaid was being cut?

Yes, let us provide food, housing and jobs for the evacuees of the Gulf Coast – for the long term, not merely the short term. Let us welcome the new arrivals into our communities with open arms. But let us do the same for those in our own hometowns and cities who need similar support – those who are hungry, those who are homeless, those who are unemployed. Do I wish that my government would use large amounts of the taxes I pay for this endeavor rather than on armaments, weapons of mass destruction and bridges to nowhere? Absolutely. But the time has come for us to take matters into our own hands.

We have been awakened. And, praise the Lord, the mainstream media have been awakened too. Regardless, it is up to us to speak up. It is up to us to make the horrors of poverty, injustice, preemptive war, political malfeasance and rule by the corporate bottom line visible for all to see.

Our nation, each of us, received an enormous wakeup call out of the tragedy in New Orleans last week – more undeniable than the catastrophe of 9/11, more unambiguous than the torture and rape at Abu Ghraib, more unarguable than the death and destruction in Iraq. There is more afoot here than human consciousness can typically perceive. Yet, it has become apparent to many that the inequities and incongruencies in our society will not stand. Reality (or God or Allah or the Big Kahuna, as you prefer) will not permit us to continue on the path that we have taken. Thus, if we do not discern the deepest meaning of this most recent shock wave and change course accordingly, even larger such wakeup calls await us.

Out of every tragedy an opportunity. Let us seize this outrage as an opportunity to create a nation that truly lives up to its promises for all of our citizens. And let each of us not only speak the words of compassion, freedom and justice; let us commit to live those values every day of our lives.

"I tremble for my country when I consider God is just, and that His justice shall not sleep forever." – Thomas Jefferson

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Bruce Mulkey
Bruce Mulkey is a writer, author and columnist. His commentaries have appeared regularly in the Asheville (NC) Citizen-Times as well as at, Common Dreams News Center, Truthout, Information Clearing House, Smirking Chimp, Intervention Magazine and BuzzFlash. He is also the author of Peaceful Patriots: Taking a Stand for Peace in an Era of Endless War. Bruce lives near downtown Asheville, N.C., with his wife, Shonnie Lavender, and their five cats. You may contact him at [email protected] or visit his weblog at Copyright © 2005 Bruce R. Mulkey. All rights reserved.


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