Katrina's Wake: A Humanitarian Disaster?

A body floats in floodwater in New Orleans(image from Flickr)

I’ve got a page in my FiloFax which is filled with Blog topics but Katrina is begging to be discussed. As most armchair-analysts do, I have spent the last few days watching the footage on TV and passing ill-informed comment. My initial reactions were “they shouldn’t have stayed, it’s their own fault”, “looters are scum, there’s no excuse”, “the Authorities are doing all they can” and so on.

It transpires that, despite being given plenty of days notice, many of these people – predominantly black ‘African Americans’ - couldn’t escape the city. The cost and logistics of public transport meaning that options were limited. I’m not sure how much of this I believe. Everyone in America has a car and gas costs less than Pepsi. If you couldn’t get out, you must have known someone who could and would. The reasons people have stayed therefore are multi-faceted.

» A belief that the storm wasn’t as serious as officials predicted.
» The assumption that it would be 48hrs of wind and rain – not that the levees would break and cut them off.
» To protect property from looting (a popular view, easily proposed with hindsight)
» Infirm, old, disabled or incapacitated in any way.

Whatever their reasons, a proportion did stay and the dramatic scenes on TV and documented on
Flickr show the fragility of the society they created. In particular the result of their impoverished layer of society. I can’t assume that middle-class educated citizens would behave differently of course but in the absence of any comparison scenario I am unable to see these events as anything other than the product of an ill-educated strata of society that has always been living perilously close to anarchy.The actions of looters are deplorable aren’t they? Where does one cross the line though? Is breaking a shop window to get to food and water looting? Is it material gain or a simple act of subsistence? Are property rights sacrosanct in such an environment? I would say that taking anything other than that essential for human survival is looting, the media is debating this furiously. The images of dreadlocked men floating out of supermarkets with beer cannot be excusable on any level. However, is this another race issue. Does it matter if the “looter” is black or white (alternative interpretations of that picture)?

A hungry survivor? Or a starving survivor? You decide…

People are sitting there on TV sobbing and screaming about people suffering from hunger when they’ve not eaten a full meal for all of 48hrs. These are people used to (albeit nutritionally-poor) above average amounts of food on a daily basis, any enforced fasting is going to seem like a big deal. People aren’t likely to go un-rescued for anything longer than 3-4 days, whilst very very difficult for people this is hardly a case of people dying of malnutrition. I saw one guy, about 230lbs, in a clean white t-shirt waving his hands at the camera pleading starvation, I may be cynical but this guy is hungry having not eaten for a few days, not starving. Given that a film crew got in, he can get out.

To finish I accept the situation is critical, deplorable even. But it is not a humanitarian disaster in the same way that the Asian Tsunami was, or the Sudan is. This is America, the media love images of gun-toting looters and the distressed public and this is what we’re being fed. In less than 24 hours the

Superdome will be cleared, the choppers will have deposited enough guardsmen to enforce law and order and people will begin to focus on what’s really important in New Orleans – whether there’ll be Mardi Gras.

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