The ultimate lesson of Katrina may be that America’s compassion is racially and socially subjective. For most of America, Katrina was The Other Thing Happening To Other People. Millions of whites were affected both in New Orleans and surrounding counties in Missouri and Mississippi. But is was mostly the unthinkable horror of the Superdome, this place in America looking indistinguishable from the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, that shocked the world and exposed deep divisions not only between White and Black America, but between Black America itself.
Less than ten years after 1991’s Halloween Nor’easter storm took out the fishing boat
The Andrea Gail, Hollywood cast George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg
and made a fortune off of The Perfect Storm. But nobody’s
even thinking about making a movie about a disaster much worse
than the ’91 Nor’easter. A modern American city was all but
wiped off of the face of the earth. There are hundreds of if not
thousands of stories to be told about those events and the
terrible days and weeks that followed. But, so far as I know,
nobody’s even thinking about shooting that on film. The face of
1991’s Perfect Storm is that of George Clooney. The face of
Hurricane Katrina, however, is a black face, an impoverished
African American watching her city being evacuated as she is
left to drown. Fleets of school and Metro busses remained
parked, ridiculously locked up in fenced yards, while the poor,
the disabled, the elderly of the city watched the waters rise.
From low-lying areas you could see the bridges jammed with
evacuees, belongings piled high in their cars, the traffic jams
extending for miles as state troopers struggled to keep traffic
moving. Poorer residents could hear the evacuation orders blared
from megaphones of passing police cars and fire apparatus. Many
set out on foot, carrying what they could. Many simply refused
to leave: they’d seen hurricanes before, and leaving would be an
invitation to looters, many of them their own neighbors. As the
most devastating storm in a generation closed in, many of the
city’s poorest residents did absolutely nothing. Many simply
lacked the resources to leave or even to board up their homes.
Children continued to play, residents sat back and played music,
watched videos. No sense worrying about it. New Orleans was used
to frequent storm warnings and dire predictions. The city could
not realistically afford to evacuate everyone each time a storm
warning was posted.
I am persuaded that absolutely no one living in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans Parish had any clue about what they were facing. Like most Americans, I watched the Katrina preamble, the dire warnings on the news, with some skepticism. We’d heard that story before. I expected things to be bad, but not the kind of total devastation the storm actually produced. I am sure few residents even considered that the levees would fail.
And, for a moment, for maybe a day, they were right. The levees did not fail. There was massive flooding, but most of the Ninth Ward was still standing as Katrina pounded New Orleans. But, then, the storm surge came. A storm surge is an offshore rise of water associated with a low pressure weather system, caused primarily by high winds pushing on the ocean's surface. The wind causes the water to pile up higher than the ordinary sea level. There were multiple severe levee breaks along both the MRGO and the Industrial Canal, causing catastrophic flooding catching as many as ten thousand Ninth Ward residents by surprise and stranding many of them in their homes. And then things got really bad.
Six years later, I’m looking for something profound to say about the American Tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina was not merely a tragedy for African Americans but for all of America. Millions of rural whites in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama regions were likewise visited by horror and devastation. It was not the storm itself but America’s response to it that makes Katrina a tragedy for us all. The ensuing days, weeks and even months dispelled the post-9/11 false sense of unity in this nation by peeling the scab off of the festering, unhealed wound of racism in this country and the bitter racial divide which endures to this day.
An American Disgrace: Cleaned-up, self-congratulatory government photos don't tell the real story.
This is what Black America saw: thousands and thousands of
faces, just like ours, abandoned, left to fend for themselves
in an American wasteland, a disaster zone which had no organized
relief, no emergency response. The president stayed on vacation,
FEMA seemed, best face, disorganized, and the National Guard and
Coast Guard were nowhere in sight. Black America was shocked,
then stunned, then outraged that an American city filled with
American citizens could suffer this level of devastation and yet
still be ignored. It was damming confirmation of what Black
America surely knew all along, that there has always existed a
double standard in this country. The state and federal response
to those suffering black faces seemed to be, We’ll get to it
when we get to it.
This is what White America saw: image after image of irrational, screaming, profane, ignorant black people raging at news crews, looting stores, breaking into cars, led away in handcuffs. On another screen: image after image of white people coming to their rescue. White people dangling from helicopters pulling black people and black babies off rooftops. White people loading up trucks with water and supplies, white people piloting boats through the miserable, foul and diseased waters to rescue blacks, some of whom had chosen to stay behind and now demanded white people risk heir necks to save them. And that’s it, in a nutshell, the racial divide. Blacks blaming the White Man, cursing the White Man even while black police either ignored or victimized them, deserted their posts or looted stores. Who was restoring order? For the most part, white people. White troops, white pilots, white rescue workers. We scream, “Racism! The White Man Done Us Wrong!” even as a white man drags our sorry ass out of danger we placed our own selves in. And that’s the hell, White America angered and believing all blacks are ignorant and irrational even as they see, with their own eyes, whites from around America racing to help them. And blacks, having been thus rescued by whites, and who being so impoverished likely pay little or no taxes, spending white folks’ money with those FEMA cards and the billions in rescue efforts and restoration, cursing whites on TV.
This is what I saw: a mile of black. Every hurricane story puts cameras on those who chose to ride out the storm and who were now trapped, requiring men and women to risk their lives to save these idiots who should have left. In the case of Katrina, my initial presumption was much like the rest of the country: the usual handful of local Gomers clinging to the still in the backyard. I figured, as perhaps many did, maybe a few dozen who did not get out. Maybe a hundred. Two hundred, tops. I wasn't prepared for what I saw. This had to be wrong. There were too many—far too many people trapped in that disaster zone. The faces went on and on, hundreds, no thousands of them. And the faces were primarily if not exclusively black. A mile of black. I thought I was looking at stock footage from the epic rainy season in Kinshasa. These images and interviews startled me because of the consistency of broken, colloquial English that suggested a lack of education or an extremely limited or poor educational experience.
It is possible footage existed of rational, reasonable blacks making responsible choices and efforting to help one another, but the media will always go to the circus. I heard almost no rational voices. Nearly every interview was of a seemingly semi-literate person who, even with the best of intentions, seemed irrational and ignorant. Day after day of this, and I remember myself being horrified on behalf of those people even while cringing at them at the same time. Was there not one rational voice in the entire Lower Ninth Ward? Not one articulate or thoughtful voice? Was the media deliberately seeking out the nut jobs and exploiting the undereducated? I remember thinking, My God, they’re everywhere. By “them,” I meant there wasn’t the occasional ignorant, country, beloved Uncle Junebug out there. There were hundreds of them. Thousands. Tens of thousands. This horrible thought swept over me: the media wasn’t targeting Junebug for attention—Junebug was the rule rather than the exception. Junebug was everywhere.