Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Day After Tomorrow



















Be honest - without the heading, would you have guessed which country this picture was taken in?

Hollywood analogies are now cliche for New Orleans - not to mention grossly insensitive to the plight of the one or two hundred thousand-odd souls trapped there - but the scenes emanating from this stricken town are eerily reminiscent of the slew of disaster flicks that involve American (occasionally British) cities being destroyed by everything from tsunamis to asteroids to zombies/Martians. No one makes movies about this sort of thing happening in the Third World because such images are part of our daily lifestyle, a staple of world news reports and TV commercial breaks. It's sad that it takes a breakdown in law, order and the basic conditions of life within an 'advanced' society to shock us, and drive home how a thin a veneer civilisation really is.

By and large the media coverage has tiptoed round the uncomfortable fact that all the people left in this God-forsaken city seem to be African-American - or more specifically, that part of the population without the means to escape on their own. Certainly the only evacuation procedure carried by the Australian media prior to Katrina hitting was an order by New Orlean's mayor for everyone to leave town. Assuming that Bush's America hasn't gone so laissez-faire that even disaster aversion is privatised, a deep cesspool has still been dug for nasty pitfights over race relations and socioeconomic inequalities, into which the media gratuitously lobs new grenades as each day ticks past: white tourists being evacuated ahead of black locals, black gangs raping and pillaging, etc.

Mayor Dagin, trapped in the city's sweltering football stadium like a captain with his sinking ship, has issued a 'desperate SOS' (isn't 'save our souls' desperate enough?). With over 20,000 of his charges dying from thirst and being murdered around him, one can understand his urge to put the screws on a tardy federal government, but it was hardly necessary. Whoever thought that in this day and age, things like this can happen in America:

An old man in a chaise lounge lay dead in a grassy median as hungry babies wailed around him. Around the corner, an elderlywoman lay dead in her wheelchair, covered up by a blanket, and another body lay beside her wrapped in a sheet.

"I don't treat my dog like that,'' 47-year-old Daniel Edwards said as he pointed at the woman in the wheelchair.

"You can do everything for other countries, but you can't donothing for your own people,'' he added. "You can go overseas withthe military, but you can't get them down here.''

The ghastly images keep scrolling, like a montage from Gone With the Wind on steroids. But this isn't the war-ravaged Confederacy in 1864, this is the United States in 2005 - a nation effectively at peace but which is supposed to have been gearing up for four years for a major terrorist attack on its soil. A few issues have been raised by the sketchy media coverage -

- why, in a country famous for overlapping state and federal bureaucracies, was there apparently no specific planning for an event such as this;

- why was New Orleans relying on a century-old levee system when it lies below sea level in a part of the world known as the Hurricane Coast (last year Florida was hit four times);

- why did it take four to five days after the storm passed through for the national guard to turn up in force;

- why are the local police armed with revolvers when the looters are sporting AK-47's;

- why didn't Bush break with the precedent set by Putin during the Kursk affair and himself during the Asian Tsunami, and head South at once instead of squeezing a couple more days into his summer vacation.

All the foregoing has provided plenty of ammunition for both Left and Right, who even as the first catastrophic pictures filtered in were marshalling their forces for pitched battle (or preemptive strikes, in some cases) over everything not to do with New Orleans - the Kyoto Protcol, Iraq, you name it. I for one have neither time nor inclination to trawl through the reams of FEMA budget figures, hurricane data and national guard deployment statistics that have inundated the mainstream media and the blogosphere. All I know is that henceforth, when I gaze at the framed picture of the Bourbon Orleans on my bathroom wall, it'll evoke not the charm of the antebellum South but the unedifying spectacle of the well-heeled scoring political points over the bodies of the tired, poor and huddled masses.

God Save America. And the rest of us.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...
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John Lee said...

more spam... will we ever be free?

Anonymous said...
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Jeremy said...

You know you can permanently delete those comments? I've had a few recently. They seem to come with those waves of random next hits I was telling you about. Blogger needs to get some spam protection like at Totten .

Anonymous said...
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Jeremy said...

Oh, blogger does have word verificaion. It's in settings/comments. I've only had 2 spam comments but I'll turn it on if I get more.

CJ said...

From what I've heard, the levee protecting New Orleans was only built to withstand up to a Category 3 hurricane due to cost savings. Lovely.

John Lee said...

There were two projects for upgrading Louisiana's levee system that go back to the late 90's, but both were grossly underfunded even before 9/11, after which money inevitably got siphoned off into anti-terrorism measures. That still doesn't explain the bureacuratic ineptness that hamstrung the relief effort, e.g. lack of interagency communication, a problem that was specifically identified after 9/11 and has had buckets of money thrown at it by Homeland Security. It defies belief that Chertoff (HS chief) was ambushed with news of the Convention Center on Thursday. His own portfolio, in the name of all that's holy.

This storm has opened up one ugly can of worms - Congressional cheese-paring, bureaucratic turf battles, corrupt city officials (and cops), class divisions, urban decay. It's hard to say against the backdrop of so much suffering, but the US is going to be having a hard look at itself as a society in the stagnant mirror that's New Orleans.