Humble Pie

Sometimes you have to eat humble pie. Last night as I travelled down to Hampshire in what must have been one of the most delayed motorway excursions I’ve ever had, I had the fortune to be listening to various BBC radio reports about New Orleans. Coupled with a flick through the paper on the train back from Norwich that evening, I began to realise that yesterday’s post on the situation there was bordering on the offensively na├»ve.

In the same way that the world has had to re-asses America’s political integrity and foreign policy in the wake of the disasterous ‘occupation’ of Iraq, so we are having to re-asses America’s socio-democratic integrity following the scenes of physical and social devastation in the flooded Southern States.

How can it be that this beacon of global development, the “land of the free and the home of the brave”, sends National Guardsmen to randomly drop water supplies on citizens and let an anarchic mob control the distribution? How can rows of gun-toting soldiers stand by in silence and inaction as scores of desperate people are jostled, anxious and confused in conditions of mediaeval squalor? I simply do not understand how this stellar country has failed to prepare adequately for such a well-forecast disaster. School buses, for example, remained un-moved when they could so easily have been used to ferry the impoverished and infirm from the danger zone.

I read also of the elderly, abandoned and dying in wheelchairs. A conference centre packed with people of all ages expiring through neglect, whilst across town the Superdome is terrorised by armed and violent gangs who are raping and beating fellow citizens, all the while the World’s cameras buzz overhead.

I (often wrongly) draw comparsions with our own country. What if Manchester was plunged into similar circumstances? Would the notrious gangs of Salford be so violent, disrespectful and armed with guns? Would efforts to bring law-and-order by our police and servicemen be met with similar armed resistance? Would our troops, famous for their ‘hearts and minds’ approach, be successful with that strategy or would they too fail to distribute aid with any sense of priority? My belief is that this would not be the case and the American response is a simple reflection of the proliferation of guns and a misguided notion that this heavily evangelical region is a community with unquestionable Christian morality and integrity.

The situation in the southern states (ironically as it was in post-invasion Iraq) has been handled abysmally. Hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing and it is easy to criticise from a distance but the facts remain. The majority of the wealthy and the able escaped the city. The poor and infirm were trapped. Officials knew for some time the threat Katrina posed and provision was made with neither time nor skill, to evacuate the city comprehensively. It is obvious (and accepted by the gorvenment) that relief was too slow, too disorganised and did not consider the security situation.

America needs to wake-up quickly. On the one hand we said America was too insular and needed to think global to address foreign policy. Now Americans will be wondering how it is troops can invade a country but can’t prevent anarchy in their own backyard. Whether the country is introspective or has Imperial aspirations it seems to approach both inadequately. Things have to change and it’s unbearable to think that this Administration has just secured “Four More Years”.

But now is not the time to pass judgement, it is time to put aside objections about policy. America, so often first to help, needs the world’s attention and comprehensive assistance. Britain should contribute in money and in manpower. Those who say otherwise must consider whether this would be forthcoming were the reverse to be true. The answer is “of course it would”.

  • Here's a blog from the 'Eye Of The Storm' which is somewhat better at reflecting the conditions than I am


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.