Column: Four Days Late and Millions of Dollars Short By P.M. PRICE

Friday September 09, 2005

Imagine that you are young and poor and nursing your beautiful new baby (brown and dimpled, with a head full of hair) while looking after your sister’s children and thumbing through the newspaper looking for a job. Your mother, who has been your rock, is in the next room tending to your ailing father who is suffering from diabetes. Your little brother walks in from school, hungry as usual. You butter the last slice of bread and try to help him with his homework which, at the seventh grade level, is already beyond you. 

Your family subsists on your sister’s minimum-wage paycheck and the meager government assistance your father receives as a Vietnam War veteran. Your boyfriend helps out when he can but he is also young, unemployed and undereducated. He is angry much of the time, frustrated that he cannot do more. It is the end of the month, that time when food, milk, meat and diapers run out and you thank God that the checks are due tomorrow. But tomorrow doesn’t come. Instead, the water is rising. The water is rising and you have no food, no money and no place to go. 

This is the kind of human interest story we should have heard about in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans. But we didn’t. The media could well handle coverage of the overall devastation. The shocking visuals spoke for themselves, not unlike the kind of footage gathered when covering the aftermath of a war. But, in terms of the human side of the story, the media seriously failed, beginning with its constant referral to the mostly poor, mostly black survivors as “refugees” as though they were Third World aliens who didn’t belong here anyway.  

I first visited New Orleans, my Creole husband’s hometown, in 1981. After we wined and dined our way through the French Quarter, making certain to save enough room for Mama’s gumbo, we drove through the surrounding dilapidated neighborhoods, a stark contrast to the picturesque Vieux Carre. As we drove on, I noticed that many of the homes had little shacks adjacent to them, too small to be garages and too large to be storage units. “Those were the slave quarters,” I was told. Close enough so that you could hear your mistress hollering but separate enough to render yourself invisible until needed. I was shocked. As a second-generation Californian, I had never been to the South, never seen any plantations or physical remnants of overt segregation—much less slavery—until that moment. The reality of it all, up close and personal, brought tears to my eyes. 

I also noticed the class divisions among New Orleans’ white, black and Creole citizens, much like those in South Africa between the wealthy whites, the poor, working-class blacks and the middle income, mixed-race “coloreds.” Most of the whites and Creoles are well-educated professionals, property and business owners. The majority of the blacks are poorly educated, low-income wage earners or unemployed.  

It is these folks whose ancestors lived in those shacks. It is these folks whose ancestors worked Louisiana’s prosperous sugar, cotton and rice fields, even after slavery. And it is these folks who were left to rot for four days while FEMA, Homeland Security and the rest of the Bush administration ignored the local government’s pleas for help. FEMA director Michael Brown admitted that the federal government didn’t even know that there were evacuees at the Convention Center, stranded without food or water, until they had been there two days! Three babies died there, of heat exhaustion and dehydration. Three babies.  

One young mother who had just given birth and been separated from her newborn in the hospital, was given about five seconds on the news, her baby’s photo in hand, her eyes pleading for help. We weren’t even given her name. Perhaps if she had looked like Natalee Holloway, Laci Petersen or Chandra Levy those cameras would have been ordered to follow her until that baby was found. We would have seen: Heart-Wrenching Search, followed by Touching Reunion, Tears of Joy, then Cut to Diaper Commercial and it’s a Wrap! 

Instead, we were subjected to continuous media focus on “looters.” Particularly galling was the now infamous photo from the Associated Press depicting a young black man making his way through the water with a bag of food. He was described as having “looted” the food while a white couple pictured in an Agence France-Presse photograph with a similar bag of food was described as having “found” their food. The distinction was glaringly racist, indefensible.  

Most of these distraught evacuees—exhausted, hungry and still reeling from shock—were herded into arenas that were no more than holding pens, eventually locked in as though they were prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, prevented from joining relatives aching to rescue them and unprotected from criminals who had been thrown in there with them. Families were split apart, put onto buses and not told where they were being taken. According to Barbara Bush, these folks are doing just fine. In yet another demonstration of “conservative compassion”—I mean, “compassionate conservatism”—she made the following comment on Tuesday while touring relief centers in Houston: 

“What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas—so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this—this (chuckle chuckle) is working very well for them.” 

What planet is she from? Unbelievable. No. What’s worse is that it is believable. Here we are in 2005 and to many, black folks are still viewed as not quite human, as only three-fifths of a man.  

According to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and local activist Malik Raheem (as reported on KPFA) the federal government should have commandeered Greyhound buses, trucks and vans from nearby dealerships, empty high-rises and hotels, boats and medical supplies—anything they could get their hands on to save lives. Instead, FEMA was turning away water and fuel and cutting communication and emergency lines. When the National Guard finally arrived, fresh from Iraq, Gov. Kathleen Blanco gave them orders not to help or protect people but to “shoot to kill” looters and protect property. What about gas company “looters,” taking advantage of this disaster to price gouge? Should they be shot, too? 

Thank goodness there were many private citizens who didn’t reflect the attitudes and behaviors of our elected leaders. Many stories will be told of individual heroism, of people risking their lives and opening their homes to save others. I hope that the fast-food chains are helping out. It is poor people like these flood survivors—many of whom are suffering from obesity, heart disease and diabetes—who are the fast-food industry’s most loyal customers. Where you at, Mickey D? And what about the right-wing Christian ministers who have been all over the airwaves preaching about saving American families? What are they doing to help these Americans who are now “the least among us?” What would Jesus do?  

Nor is Berkeley off the hook. During this past week I have visited more than a dozen stores—coffee shops, supermarkets, drug stores, bookstores, clothing boutiques—all around town. Only one (Whole Foods) had set up a jar by the cash register seeking donations for the hurricane victims. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the other stores weren’t doing anything to help, however they missed a great opportunity to raise perhaps thousands of dollars from spontaneous giving immediately after the disaster struck. What a shame. 

The handling of this entire event has been shameful. Individual rescuers succeeded in spite of the bureaucracy, not because of its assistance, organization or direction—all of which have been sorely lacking. But then, this part of America, where you find “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” has been neglected for a long, long time. As one unidentified woman eloquently put it: “I had nothing before the hurricane. Now I have less.” 

What’s next? Will these displaced Americans ever be allowed to return home? Or will they be turned out in scenes reminiscent of the emancipation of slaves following the Civil War—left to wander wherever their feet will take them while developers turn their former homes into golf courses, high-priced condos and shopping malls. 

Wherever they settle, once their families are reunited and their souls begin to heal; once their children are back in school, their elders are being treated, their dead are buried and they begin to rebuild their lives, the number one thing on these folks’ list should be to go on down to the nearest county courthouse and register to vote.