Toronto Star editorial on Katrina aftermath

by Yule Heibel on September 2, 2005

The following is from an article by Rosie DiManno in today’s TorontoStar. The Star requires registration, which might keep people from reading DiManno’s article, hence I’m quoting it. This is how America is seen abroad: an emerging third world nation. Here’s the article, in full:

Tales of woe shame a nation


NEW ORLEANS – Nature wrought destruction but human beings have brought disgrace.

It is disgraceful that countless people are still stranded five days after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf coastline, flattening communities and knocking a major metropolis on its ear.

It is disgraceful that hundreds of state troopers and National Guard soldiers have been deployed to protect property rather than help people.

It is disgraceful that thousands of hurricane refugees — including the elderly, the infirm, the sick, mothers with babes in arms, children separated from parents — have been essentially abandoned in the Superdome and the convention centre, left to fend for themselves without food or water.

It is disgraceful that not a single relief agency has any presence on the ground as far as those of us who are here can see. No Red Cross, no federal emergency administrators, no medical teams, no shelter officials, no angels of mercy.

That is why, beneath the damp and dank, New Orleans is seething.

That — and not rampant greed — is why there has been so much looting in recent days, to the extent that police and troops have been taken away from critical rescue operations and assigned to watch the inmates, or outcasts, who are being treated like vagrants.

And that’s all they do: Watch. Patrolling up and down the main arteries, in their armoured personnel carriers — as if this were Baghdad — automatic weapons hoisted on their shoulders, never stopping to assist fragile citizens in wheelchairs and walkers or mothers with ailing, wailing infants.

I’ve seen better disaster response efforts for earthquake victims in India and the ethnically cleansed exiles of Kosovo. Even the prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay are surely being cared for better than this.

Could it be because the overwhelming majority of these dispossessed are poor and black that their very lives are apparently of less worth than business properties in the French Quarter, deluxe hotels on Canal St., chi-chi mansions in the Garden District, and tourist casinos on the riverfront?

Harrahs Casino, one of the largest and sturdiest buildings near the Riverwalk Palisade, barely damaged, has bolted its front doors, while scores of homeless families that might have taken temporary refuge therein are left to huddle on the torn-up grass, in the dripping humidity — and, yesterday afternoon, the deluge of another thunderstorm — waiting forlornly for promised evacuation buses that have yet to appear.

“We are a Third World city in a First World country,” spat out one disgusted local as he propelled a grocery cart laden with personal possessions along Royal St., intent on getting the hell out of the city, out of the parish, even if he had to walk all the way to Baton Rouge, 130 kilometres northwest. Another frail fellow, a diabetic whose limbs are too swollen to walk — he’s been unable to obtain dialysis treatment for nearly a week — was being pushed along in his wheelchair by an elderly friend. They had no specific destination — just away from here. Out, out, out. But a speeding scout car almost ran them over in the middle of the street.

Julie Holzenphal, 31, delivered her first child on Aug. 22 in nearby St. Bernard Parish, shortly before Katrina hit, but was turned out of the hospital the next day, even though maternity ward staff kept her newborn daughter, Zoe, who required medical attention. When Holzenphal managed to make her way back Wednesday, she found all the babies had been transferred to distant hospitals, some even out of state.

“I don’t know where my baby is,” the single mom sobbed. “Somebody said Houston. How am I supposed to find her? Where are the records? My house is gone, but I don’t care about that. This is my baby daughter, for God’s sake!” [emphasis added]

Everywhere, the scenes are heartbreaking, the tales of woe pathetically similar.

“We spent four nights in the Superdome, but we just couldn’t stay there no more,” said Deion Franklin, as she and husband, Lamond, ushered five youngsters and one chow puppy onto an aluminum skiff — and how the couple managed to get hold of such a precious conveyance, they wouldn’t say.

“There must have been 100,000 people in the dome, and you just wouldn’t believe the mess, the heat, even the crime,” Franklin continued. (Officials put the figure at 25,000.)

“We were always being told: `We’ll get you out of here, there are buses coming.’ But we never saw no buses.

“I didn’t want my little girls in there any more. There were at least four girls raped, that’s what I heard. Shots being fired, knives being pulled, fights breaking out all over the place.”

The woman’s daughters excitedly come forward to recount the worst thing they’d seen: “This man, he jumped right off the top section. I saw him do it,” claims the oldest. “He was holding this little girl in his lap and then he put her down and then he just jumped, killed himself.”

Franklin claims the man had scrawled his name and address on a sink before committing suicide. “Apparently he’d lost the rest of his family in the hurricane. They’d all drowned.”

There was chaotic violence at the convention centre some 10 blocks south of the Superdome, as well.

Late Wednesday night, shooting broke out and at least one person was killed. But three or four others apparently died overnight and two bodies had yet to be removed yesterday morning. They were still lying on the pavement across from the centre.

“Police won’t come in here to help us out,” complained Leanne Zambloom, as she fretted over her 11-month-old son, Jahon, frantic over the child’s listlessness, his refusal to take in fluids. “We’ve had rapes, we’ve had murders, but all the cops do is drive around with their shotguns.”

Then, wrenchingly, she begs: “Will you take my baby? Please, get him some help. I’m willing to turn him over to somebody who can get him to a doctor. I’m terrified he’s going to die.”

For several blocks, to either side of the convention centre, thousands of refugees wait sprawled on the concrete, endlessly pleading for information and release. Insofar as they are surviving at all, it’s because they are taking poignant care of each other, sharing their dwindling provisions, minding one another’s children.

“I could never have lasted this long if it wasn’t for strangers,” adds Zambloom.

It is every day more apparent that these refugees and evacuees are on their own, to cope as best they can.

“I was stuck on the roof of my house for two days, and then a 240-foot barge smashed right into it,” said Joceryn Moses. “It wasn’t no police or soldiers who rescued me. It was just a man with a boat, and I never even got his name.

“So then I’m brought here and I end up sitting on the sidewalk for three days. Can’t they at least bring in some portable toilets? You got to do your business, you squat down behind a car. Is this America? Are we animals? I don’t know, maybe we’re turning into animals.”

But what I see are young people taking care of old people, the relatively healthy caring for the sick, people sharing their paltry supplies. It’s true there’s crime and violence, but tempers are terribly frayed, and feelings of hopelessness overwhelming. The only well-known and sympathetic face these people have seen was that of the musician and actor Harry Connick Jr. The New Orleans-born celebrity — his father was the city’s famous district attorney for decades — spent yesterday wandering among the stricken.

There is also, it must be remembered, the underlying reality of impoverished and ghettoized New Orleans, where dangerous neighbourhoods were already segregated by more than race. And it is from these neighbourhoods, these resentful enclaves, that many of the refugees originate.

They didn’t get out when they were told to get out because they couldn’t get out. They’re poor. They don’t have cars. They don’t have SUVs that could navigate the flooded streets. And they had nowhere to go, so they followed the advice of officials, pouring into the Superdome and the convention centre.

“Everybody’s angry, can people on the outside understand that?” asks Kathy Jenkins, a 26-year-old single mother with a toddler and an infant. “Then you get different gangs from different projects who already have their rivalries, and they’re thrown in together. What do you think is going to happen?”

The men, the heads of families, are palpably infuriated and shamed by their inability to look after loved ones. They feel impotent, and that also nourishes their rage.

“Every time I try to talk to a police officer, I just get blown off,” grumbled Carl Davis, a labourer who has lived all of his 50 years in New Orleans.

“Man, I know we got us a disaster here. But how could they have been so ill-prepared? They knowed this was coming. There must be hundreds of public school buses in this city. Why can’t they use those to get us out of here? What would it take to give a person two square meals a day?

“We’re always sending food and doctors to people on the other side of the world. We have soldiers dying in Iraq. And they can’t get help down to us poor people in New Orleans?

“I tell you, America has let us down.” [source: TorontoStar, Sept.2, 2005)

Scripting posted the audiotape of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s interview on WWL-AM here. It’s a must-listen. Nagin is just brilliant, no bullshit. Can we have him for US president instead, please?

{ 1 comment }

Troy September 8, 2005 at 11:36 pm

It is truly shameful. It will be interesting to see what we the citizens of the U.S. are able to do about this. First, we will have to stay engaged more than a few weeks. Already, many have allowed the rising gas prices distract them from the assault on humanity in New Orleans. Perhaps, the shame of Katrina will hold our attention longer than the anger of 911.

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