September 2, 2005—The tragedy that is New Orleans—in addition
to the devastation of a beautiful city—also puts the spotlight on another
type of tragedy, that of the urban poor.
We have been treated one and all to the unrelenting news videos of pre- and
post- New Orleans, and I don't know about anyone else but the glaring disparity
between the pre and the post news takes and interviews are quite obvious.
In the interminable hours of coverage before the storm that was Katrina
we were inundated by a virtual phalanx of major and minor newscasters—overwhelmingly
white—scrambling to present the "perfect sound byte."
The obligatory on-camera interviews with the requisite federal, state, and local
officials—along with the "man in the street" were brought to
The phrase "mandatory evacuation" was played over and over again,
along with the videos of overflowing traffic on the highways as well as lines
at the gas pumps. Along the way singular examples of the panicked egress were
picked by news producers looking for that little extra oomph factor. I
recall one aside of a businessman who paid $3,000 for first-class "one-way"
tickets to Dallas, Texas, for his family because he didn't think he could get
"very far" driving since the "gas situation" was chancy.
Along with these stories of evacuation we were also informed—almost
as an afterthought—that there were over 100,000 people "without cars
or transportation in New Orleans, who could not leave." We learned that
the New Orleans Superdome would become "the shelter of last resort"
for these people.
As the news cameras panned over the crowds of predominately minority,
elderly, and disabled people waiting, to get into the Superdome, I flashed to
the header of a news story I had read in my local paper that morning: "the
haves leaving New Orleans—the have-nots remain." How typical, how
true, them that has, gets; them that wants, gets left behind, apologies to Billie
Ironically enough, in the aftermath of Katrina it was extremely difficult for
on-scene talking heads to find a white face to place a microphone in front of—outside
of those emergency personnel trying to cope with the disaster. So we were—by
default—forced to view the heartbreak of just what it means to be a "have-not"
during a disaster. The folks confined within the Superdome did not have the
comfort of a bed in a hotel. The folks in the Superdome didn't have the first-class
"leaving on a jet airliner." No, the confinees within the Superdome
had meals-ready-to-eat (MREs), a shortage of toilet facilities, no beds to sleep
in, and water rising all around them. Disaster in New Orleans as metaphor for
life in these United States.
Having virtually no white faces—outside of the newscasters themselves—to
place in front of the microphones we were treated to video of minorities wading
through flooded streets. We were exposed to the ubiquitous looting stories—left
to draw our own conclusions, of course—as the pillaging sound bytes became
a de-facto racial denunciation.
In a related thread to the last paragraph, Wednesday Yahoo News carried two
photos with captions from New Orleans. The first photo was from AFP
Getty Images and bylined Chris Grayson; it showed a young man and woman, both
white with the caption: "Two residents wade through chest deep water after
finding bread and soda from a local grocery store." The second photo was
bylined Associated Press with no photographer credit, its caption read: "A
young black man walked through chest deep flood waters after looting a grocery
store." So, the white folks "found" their food, the black guy
"looted" his. Any further explanations needed?
Disasters typically bring out the best, and worst in people as we all know.
For every scene of looting there are as well numerous scenes of heroics. I listened
to an interview on NPR, the morning after Katrina, with a woman—emergency
services worker—who had been at her post for more than 18 hours and the
fatigue, as well as concern for those caught up in this tragedy, was evident
in her wavering voice. These are the stories within the stories of a disaster.
I come away with the feeling that the national media—save for a token
'good news' story or two—is much more interested in playing up the "have"
and "have not" aspect.
Of course we all know just what drives the media engines: disaster,
sensationalism, and people acting badly, which boosts the rating and profitability
sectors of their respective bottom lines. Never mind finding out—asking
the hard questions—like why in a city that is mostly below sea level there
were no plans for evacuation of all its residents? Knowing the levee system
could be overwhelmed, thereby inundating the city and leaving over 100,000 mostly
minority, elderly, and disabled people without a way out appears to me to be
rather callous. Of course, we realize that such a 'non-plan' goes well beyond
the scope of mere callousness and the mainstream media certainly has no intention
of going there.
The next crises to certainly come will be health related. As sure as night
follows day, we will begin to see outbreaks of infectious diseases. Potable
drinking water is at a premium, and raw sewage is flowing with the floodwaters
as well as poisonous snakes and other critters. President Bush has stated that
all humanely possible will be done, but I find it very telling indeed that he
and Laura didn't show up in Louisiana or Mississippi to hand out bottles of
water as they did last year in his brother's state of Florida.
Will the people left behind in New Orleans be rescued, or are they to be in
effect imprisoned behind an impenetrable wall of flood waters? Will the white
folks left continue to "find food" while the black folks continue
to "loot" food? Will George and Laura Bush ride in on a presidential
flotilla offering bottles of water and an encouraging word? Will the news media
don wet suits and snorkel to ferret out the next sensational "human interest"
story? Will we see hordes of "gator wrestlers" and snake handles descend
in their flat bottom boats to combat any floating reptilian armies? All of this
and more, inquisitive minds desire to know.
NOTE: This writer is in no way making light of the disaster visited by Katrina,
as a former resident of South Florida I have seen, as well as experienced the
disparity regarding evacuation and shelter plans during this type of disaster.
No one knows what is in store in the days to come for the people along the Gulf
coast, we all need to send whatever forms of prayer we use, along with resources
to try to alleviate their anguish.