Before Treme starts tonight, I decided I’d better catch up on that whole Katrina thing. It is hard for me to relate how much I miss, because I don’t watch TV news, of non-local events like Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti. I see still photos, I listen on NPR, I watch the occasional Internet video, but I don’t have that day-to-day, wall-to-wall television news experience. Which insulates me. (And not just from stress of being violently irritated at the idiocy of the television news.) It protects me, I must admit, from gaining much emotional connection to farflug places ravaged by war, violence and national disaster.
Anyway, Jaffner had recommended When the Levees Broke Before some while back, but when she mentioned it this week, I picked it up and have spent the last two nights gaining a much better understanding. Of the horror of what happened and the immense scope of it. And of this horrible, shameful episode in our nation’s history.
At the end, this morning, I just sat and cried. Not only for the people who died, and the people who watched their family members die, and the people who lost everything, and the people who were displaced from their ancestral communities to faraway cities. What made me cry the most was how ashamed and angry and afraid I am for this country.
What is wrong with our priorities as a nation when we can spend $2 billion a week trashing another country but cannot commit the resources to taking care of our own after a storm trashes it? This is just so wrong that I cannot comprehend that we have come to this.
We’re up to over $700 billion in Iraq alone now, aren’t we? What would have been the cost to fix those levees years ago? I remember reading a big front-page piece in the New York Times a few years before Katrina, about how if a big hurricane hit, the city would be drowned. Fast-forward to Labor Day weekend 2005, I’m at Lake Martin watching this massive red and yellow splotch head toward New Orleans on the Weather Channel and thinking, “That city is going to disappear, like Atlantis.”
OK, but we’re America, right? We send in the troops and the Red Cross when other nations get washed away by tsunamis. We save people and give them medicine and food and water.
You can not tell me this is not about race, folks. Not necessarily in an overt, “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People” way, but in the usual way that the low-income have no political power. And certainly in the way that people in New Orleans became, in the media, looters and thugs, unwanted refugees, and victims of their own decisions to live in a city below sea level and not to get out when they should have.
I am a forgiving person. I like to look past mistakes to how to fix them, rather than spend a lot of energy on things that cannot be changed without turning back time. So I can get past our not making the investment to prevent this, and even to some degree the major failure to respond to what is a disaster of unimaginable proportion. I will not sit here an blame George Bush for the whole thing, and can even shake my head through the insensitivities of the Bush family during Katrina and its aftermath.
The displacement part, though, is hard. MW volunteered for the Red Cross here in Cobb County for months, helping people who didn’t know where their families were, people who needed prescriptions, people who had no idea where they would go next. Our middle school, which serves a lot of apartments, became the school for a good number of displaced “Katrina kids.” I’ll never forget sitting in a meeting one afternoon, as an administrator explained why this school has had a hard time meeting NCLB standards, and hearing a white mom pipe up, “Well, are they going to let us exclude the Katrina kids from testing? Do we have to accept those kids if it means we won’t meet standards?” Let’s be sure we have our priorities straight, people. Let’s welcome these kids with open hearts and hugs, and then we can worry about the bureaucracy and our own selfish pride.
What I cannot get past, at all, is our nation’s failure to make it a major priority to make the investment to get people back there, to fund opportunities for grassroots community building and economic empowerment. And to build those levees so that this can never, ever happen again.
People of all parts of the political spectrum can agree on this, I think: Our government’s role, first and foremost, should be to protect its citizens. Well, we didn’t, and we haven’t.