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Sunday, May 24, 2015
- As thousands of people in New Orleans approach their fifth day without food, water or shelter, the news media and, doubtless, millions of ordinary citizens are wondering how state and particularly federal authorities could have been so slow to respond to one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.
“I have seen such scenes before, but always on television and always from faraway places,” wrote a staff reporter for the New York Daily News. “In Third World nations, but not here.”
It was a typical comment this week, particularly by anchors of the nation’s cable news outlets, as they surveyed the vast devastation and human misery inflicted by Hurricane Katrina on neighbourhoods, towns, and cities along the U.S. Gulf Coast from New Orleans, Louisiana to Mobile, Alabama.
But its basic assumption – that the Third World is somewhere “far away” – was incorrect. What Katrina laid bare to the world, as well as to U.S. viewers who watched the scenes of U.S. citizens in desperate need of basic necessities, is that the United States – despite its status as the world’s sole superpower and global hegemon – has a great deal in common with the Third World, and increasingly so.
– As in natural disasters in the developing world, Katrina’s victims were overwhelmingly poor. Nearly one-third of the city of New Orleans, for example, lives below the poverty line, while Louisiana and Mississippi, the two hardest-hit states have the highest childhood poverty rates in the nation – over 50 percent.
– As in many developing countries, the U.S. poor are disproportionately made up of racial and ethnic minorities who have experienced a history of discrimination and repression.
As pointed out by the Center for American Progress (CAP), two- thirds of New Orleans’ population is black, but the Lower Ninth Ward neighbourhood, which was reportedly almost completely under water and is likely to have been the source of the greatest number of fatalities, was more than 98 percent black.
– As in many developing countries, the gap between rich and poor in the United States is large – indeed the largest of all developed countries – and growing fast. Indeed, the Republican-controlled Congress is scheduled next week to take up a bill that would permanently repeal the estate tax, a move that would ensure that the richest two percent of the country can pass along all of their wealth to their heirs, rather than share any of it with the government.
Repeal will cost the public treasury – and the services that it funds – an estimated one trillion dollars over 10 years.
– As in many developing countries, the poorest members of society are the most alienated from their government and vice versa – a situation made vivid by remarks Thursday by Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which suggested that the storm’s victims bore substantial responsibility for their own plight.
Noting estimates that “thousands” of poor residents may have died in New Orleans, Brown, a long-time buddy of President George W. Bush who was also in-house counsel for the Arabian Horse Association, said, “Unfortunately, that’s going to be attributable to people who did not heed the advance warnings (to evacuate).”
“The one thing that people miss,” noted Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, “is that a lot of blacks here don’t have their own means of transportation. So when you say ‘evacuate’ to a person who doesn’t even have a car, what are you saying? Most of these people were not able to go.”
Indeed, about one-third of New Orleans’ half million residents don’t own a car. Even those who did stayed home because, without a credit card or cash or a clear plan worked out by FEMA or local disaster agencies, in the words of Florida Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, “they never had no place to go”.
Of course, it takes precisely a national disaster like Katrina to illustrate the common factors that unite Katrina’s victims with their Third World counterparts, in major part because, as a black columnist for the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson, pointed out, the popular image of New Orleans of Mardi Gras festivities and “laissez les bons temps rouler” (“let the good times roll”) obscured another reality of “great anger and resentment”.
In its initial coverage of the crisis, the mainstream media appeared reluctant to address such issues, other than to deplore the “looting” that followed the storm, at least until one CNN anchor, Jack Cafferty, took his journalistic colleagues to task Thursday for ignoring what he called “the elephant in the room. …The race and economic class of most of the victims the media hasn’t discussed much at all,” he declared.
By Friday morning, even as Bush himself set out to grab the spotlight by personally touring the devastation, it seemed that at least some discussion – even about whether taking food and other necessities from abandoned stores when the government had so clearly failed to provide them could be called “looting” – was finally underway.
“[T]here has been a growing sense that race and class are the unspoken markers of who got out and who got stuck,” noted a front-page article in the New York Times. “Just as in developing countries where the failures of rural development policies become glaringly clear at times of natural disasters like floods or drought …some of the United States’ poorest cities have been left vulnerable by federal policies.”
“Lawlessness is the inevitable companion of mass poverty,” observed USA Today in an editorial that stressed the failure of the government to understand the plight of the poor and compared the pictures coming out of the region to “Third World refugee camps.”
“Sadly, there is …no doubt that when New Orleans eventually returns to some form of normalcy, its poor will once again become invisible,” the paper wrote. “At least until the next disaster strikes.”