Thursday, September 01, 2005

Just so you know, this is an angry tirade

I rarely watch television news, but this morning as I was getting ready to go out I turned on the cable news and heard the singer Harry Connick Jr., of all people, at the New Orleans convention center, nearly in tears, describing dying babies and elderly people and pleading for help for the thousands of people receiving no water, no food, no protection while they waited for transportation out.

When I got home eight hours later, I turned on the tv again - to see CNN interviewing the head of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, who claimed that he was "only just hearing" about the appalling conditions at the convention center, which had apparently only gotten worse during the day. How the hell could he be "only hearing about it" now when I had heard about it hours ago just by turning on my television? If I know, and Harry Connick Jr. knows, for god's sake, how on earth can the country's top emergency relief official not know?

Reporters on the scene gave furious, frustrated reports. They'd seen none of the relief that government officials swore was already on the ground. People's children and grandparents were dying around them. It's true that there was criminal predation going on, they said, but look at the majority of people: Thousands who had followed instructions, gone where they were told, and were sitting desperately but peacefully waiting for help. Does it really look like lawlessness is preventing help from arriving, they asked? How can it be criminal looting to pick out whatever water and food can be found in the ruins, after waiting for four days in vain for help to arrive? The head of FEMA flat-out blamed the situation on people who refused to evacuate. How, asked the anchor, can you blame people who had no car, no money, no way out, and were provided no public transportation?

The reporters were angry, and so was I. For the first time in a long time, I felt proud of the press.

And I'm incredibly, indescribably angry at our government. Yes, this was a disaster of mammoth proportions, and relief in these circumstances will never get to people as fast as they want. I understand that once the bowl of New Orleans filled up with water, it was inevitably an engineering nightmare, and perhaps an impossibility, to empty it out again.

But people need to lose their jobs over this, the disaster relief and "homeland security" jobs that they, as high-rolling campaign donors, were apparently completely unequipped and unqualified to perform. And why is the president having lunch with the chair of the Federal Reserve Board to talk about gas prices and economic inconvenience for oil companies and airlines and middle-class people like me, instead of telling somebody to air lift some water bottles and police officers to those people at the convention center who'd been on the television all day long begging for help? Shouldn't we all feel discomfort at seeing a city's poorest and weakest citizens suffering like this, while being blamed by our highest government officials for their own fate and tarred one and all with the label of criminal, looter, anarchist? Are we ever going to face the fact that thousands of reservists from Louisiana and Mississippi could have been helping out, but were unavailable due to their service in the pointless Iraqi war - where the U.S. presence did nothing whatsoever prevent the stampeding death of 800 civilians en route to a religious festival? Our actions in Iraq have brought misery to the Iraqi people, and have now hindered our ability alleviate misery here at home. I know the jury is still out on the connection between global warming and hurricane ferocity; but it seems to me that global warming still seems likely to cause way more death and destruction than terrorism. Are we ever, ever going to revisit how we're choosing to invest our resources between these two threats?

I know it sounds weird, but what really gets to me is the people with their dogs. People who didn't evacuate because they didn't want to leave their dogs behind, or people risked their lives to save dogs and now face losing them because buses and shelters won't take animals. I know I'm one of those doting dog owners, but seriously, anybody who has lived side by side with an animal as your friend and companion, who trusts you and counts on you - could you leave them, terrified and confused, to face a horrible death alone?

The whole thing breaks my heart. I hope some real soul-searching will come out of it about the choices we make, the people we give important jobs to, the way we want to live our lives on the planet, the misery of fellow creatures that we prefer not to look at but sometimes can't ignore.


Anonymous said...

You're absolutely right on every point. The most disgraceful aspect of the official attitude -- not the most destructive of lives, but the most shameful -- is the easy way those who were stranded are labeled looters and anarchists, that they brought their suffering on themselves somehow by not leaving when they were physically unable to do so, or refusing to perish quietly when they were abandoned.
The overwhelming majority of those stranded in NO with no way to get out were black, and the coverage has hardly even tried to be balanced on the implications of that demographic. Example: two pictures side by side in a paper, two people neck-deep in water and each carrying food. The black person gets the caption "looters run rampant" and the white guy gets "people found ways to get food for their families". I'm white, middle class and deeply ashamed of such glib slurs.
Two other quick items in a long litany of astonishing and offensive moments: Bush saying that we'll restore NO because it will strengthen the US in its war on terrorism (thus subtly allowing the listener to imagine that somehow the terrorists did this hurricane thing, or else are directing the looting); and his early reaction to the idea of aid from other countries: we're a strong and capable country, we can do fine without help from others. Honduras weighed in with help two hours later (as did Venezuela, with a jab at "the King of Vacations").
Enough. It's beyond absorbing, let alone tolerating. Pray for the entire region, and while you're at it pray there will be some reckoning in the court of public opinion to clear out the criminally inept bureaucrats who have cost hundreds of lives by inaction and slanderous accusations of victims.

Anonymous said...

It's a terrible price to pay for the realisation that the President is an ineffective leader.