Flood victims were left virtually
to their own devices for days
At the end of an unforgettable week, one broadcaster on Friday bitterly encapsulated
the sense of burning shame and anger that many American citizens are feeling.
The only difference between the chaos of New Orleans and a Third World
disaster operation, he said, was that a foreign dictator would have responded
It has been a profoundly shocking experience for many across this vast country
who, for the large part, believe the home-spun myth about the invulnerability
of the American Dream.
The party in power in Washington is always happy to convey the impression of
50 states moving forward together in social and economic harmony towards a bigger
and better America.
That is what presidential campaigning is all about.
But what the devastating consequences of Katrina have shown - along with the
response to it - is that for too long now, the fabric of this complex and overstretched
country, especially in states like Louisiana and Mississippi, has been neglected
The fitting metaphors relating to the New Orleans debacle are almost too numerous
First there was an extraordinary complacency, mixed together with what seemed
like over-reaction, before the storm.
A genuinely heroic mayor orders a total evacuation of the city the
day before Katrina arrives, knowing that for decades now, New Orleans has been
living on borrowed time.
The National Guard and federal emergency personnel stay tucked up at
The havoc of Katrina had been predicted countless times on a local and federal
level - even to the point where it was acknowledged that tens of thousands of
the poorest residents would not be able to leave the city in advance.
No official plan was ever put in place for them.
Abandoned to the elements
The city's hurricane shelters grew increasingly filthy and crime-ridden
The famous levees that were breached could have been strengthened and raised
at what now seems like a trifling cost of a few billion dollars.
The Bush administration, together with Congress, cut the budgets for flood
protection and army engineers, while local politicians failed to generate any
enthusiasm for local tax increases.
New Orleans partied-on just hoping for the best, abandoned by anyone in national
authority who could have put the money into really protecting the city.
Meanwhile, the poorest were similarly abandoned, as the horrifying images and
stories from the Superdome and Convention Center prove.
The truth was simple and apparent to all. If journalists were there with cameras
beaming the suffering live across America, where were the officers and troops?
The neglect that meant it took five days to get water, food, and medical care
to thousands of mainly orderly African-American citizens desperately sheltering
in huge downtown buildings of their native city, has been going on historically,
for as long as the inadequate levees have been there.
It will be many weeks before the flood waters are cleared
I should make a confession at this point: I have been to New Orleans on assignment
three times in as many years, and I was smitten by the Big Easy, with its unique
charms and temperament.
But behind the elegant intoxicants of the French Quarter, it was clearly a
city grotesquely divided on several levels. It has twice the national average
The government approach to such deprivation looked more like thoughtless containment
than anything else.
The nightly shootings and drugs-related homicides of recent years pointed to a
small but vicious culture of largely black-on-black crime that everyone knew existed,
but no-one seemed to have any real answers for.
Again, no-one wanted to pick up the bill or deal with the realities of race
relations in the 21st Century.
Too often in the so-called "New South", they still look positively
"Shoot the looters" is good rhetoric, but no lasting solution.
It is astonishing to me that so many Americans seem shocked by the existence
of such concentrated poverty and social neglect in their own country.
In the workout room of the condo where I am currently staying in the affluent
LA neighbourhood of Santa Monica, an executive and his personal trainer ignored
the anguished television reports blaring above their heads on Friday evening.
Either they did not care, or it was somehow too painful to discuss.
When President Bush told "Good Morning America" on Thursday morning
that nobody could have "anticipated" the breach of the New Orleans
levees, it pointed to not only a remote leader in denial, but a whole political
The uneasy paradox which so many live with in this country - of being first-and-foremost
rugged individuals, out to plunder what they can and paying as little tax as
they can get away with, while at the same time believing that America is a robust,
model society - has reached a crisis point this week.
Will there be real investment, or just more buck-passing between federal agencies
The country has to choose whether it wants to rebuild the levees and destroyed
communities, with no expense spared for the future - or once again brush off
that responsibility, and blame the other guy.