Sunday, September 04, 2005

Physician Heal Thyself

Hurricane Katrina did more than break levees and flood a city. It exposed the deep problems this country has; problems that no one seems to want to admit or talk about. Obviously, if we can fly troops to Iraq in 24 hours we could have helped those stranded in New Orleans in less than three days. We describe the scene in New Orleans as a "refugee camp" or as a "third world country" and that is exactly how we view blacks, as refugees in their own country. We witnessed the events like we witnessed a Rwandan or Sudanese tragedy unfolding: unfortunate, but not urgent. The media even dispatched its foreign correspondents to heighten the feel that this was something other-worldly going on. But it was right here in America. Had this disaster occurred in New York, or San Francisco, had it occurred among a majority of whites, it would have been taken much more seriously.

There are so many levels in which we can examine this drama. The secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, is already trying to deflect blame and questions. The argument: we have a disaster here, let's not place blame. That's the same rhetoric that got Bush around serious questions in Iraq. But we should look at how this disaster happened. This was an example of a major urban disaster: infrastructure destroyed, power lost, people stranded, no food, no water, no sanitation. This is an example of the very thing we fear terrorists may do to our cities if given the chance. And where was our Department of Homeland security? Confused? Where was our National Guard? Iraq? What was the plan to evacuate people after such a disaster? Ill conceived?

People can say that we did not see this coming, but we had about as much prior warning as we will ever have for a major urban disaster. This was not a surprise attack like 9/11. This was a hurricane that everyone knew was coming. The Army Corps of Engineers knew the levees may not hold versus a category three or four hurricane. People knew the city was below sea level and may flood. People knew the hurricane was a category four and it landed almost exactly where we thought it would. And yet no plan was in place? I find this discouraging to say the least. I have to go to work every day and do my job. How much more seriously should leaders take their jobs when people's lives rely on their planning? I'll give my money to the Red Cross, but what are we paying taxes for?

And that was just the natural disaster. The next five days were man-made disasters. The hurricane exposed not just flaws in preparation, planning, and prevention, but also our problem of poverty and race. 40% of children in New Orleans live below the poverty line? Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in the country? How can we attempt to tell the rest of the world how to live when so many in our own country live hand to mouth, struggling for their basic needs every day?

We are like that obnoxious parent, telling other people how to raise their children, when our own are dysfunctional from example. We want to go break, and rebuild Iraq in a better way and we can't even feed, and provide basic services to many in our own country. We can't even rescue them from a flooded city, after a disaster with a week's warning. It has to make you wonder what would happen if another terrorist attack occurs. After the billions we have spent in Homeland Security, this was a nice test of the results. And the results are shameful, but they also expose the flaws that will need to be dealt with.

I do not say this because I hate America. Of course I believe in the good things this country does, and the ideals which it stands for. But why do we deny the obvious? Kanye West speaks about race being an issue in the slow relief effort, and NBC disavows that statement. It is obviously true. Some politicians try to talk about poverty, and health care, and education, and they are trumped by tough talk about war, brutalizing criminals, and privatizing our social plans. The real war is right here at home, and we have abandoned it.

People seem to hate to use hindsight as a guide. No one wants to learn from Vietnam. No one wants to criticize how we've handled Iraq. No one wants to accept the dark answers that lurk behind what made Hurricane Katrina a human tragedy. Like Rome we are off on far-flung adventures while the problems with the Empire decay it from within. And I guess my point, and the point of many of my posts, is that we can learn from history. An ounce of prevention is worth a proud of cure. Yes, we'll rebuild New Orleans. That goes without question. But will we ever answer the question of race, poverty, urban disaster readiness? Or are those too complex, and too ugly to delve into? Are we made content to take out our problems on other countries, and sweep the real problems at home back under the rug?

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