“Lady,” the Misfit said, looking beyond her far into the woods, “there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip.”
—Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
In the horrific wake of Hurricane Katrina, what can anyone say? Reporters on the ground in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast are flabbergasted as they try to articulate the naked anguish, often resorting to “hell on earth” and “third-world country” to summarize the carnage. The television footage tells the story most accurately, at least to those of us not forced to view the reality up close: thousands of poor and mostly black residents of New Orleans, abandoned for days on end without food, water, medical help, police protection, or any method of escape. The police have either disappeared from duty or are in outright combat with roving gangs of killers and rapists. Snipers take potshots at relief efforts, the old and sick die where they fall, and the flooded city is awash with corpses and raw sewage. The tragedy is unspeakable but nevertheless, debate cannot help but follow. Though it’s obvious that airing blame is a secondary concern to saving lives, it’s difficult not to travel the accusatory route. As C.S. Lewis once remarked, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”
One of the more interesting aspects of the situation is the raw aggression reporters and news anchors have shown toward authority figures in charge of the relief. Paula Zahn of CNN has especially been a pit bull, demanding somebody answer how this could be happening in America. After I comment on the unrestrained aggression of Ms. Zahn and other primetime anchors, my wife hisses, “It’s payback for all the shit the media’s been eating.” The reporters may not be allowed to film dead soldiers arriving at Dover Air Force Base, but by God they sure as hell can show bodies in the city of New Orleans. While it’s refreshing to see the American media show some guts for the first time in ages, it would have been nice to see similar vigor during the 2000 election when Jim Crow tactics repeatedly turned blacks away from voting booths and GOP operatives bashed down the doors in Florida and physically halted the recount process—”How can this be happening in America,” indeed.
The media also deserves some blame, at least slant-wise, for why so many people refused or failed to evacuate. In a world where Brad and Jennifer’s breakup earns as much or more air time than war casualties, and is presented with the same degree of pertinence, it’s no wonder that the rants of Category 4 doom were passed off as hype by many coastal residents. To be honest, I’d have wanted to ride the storm out as well, and it probably would have taken spousal subterfuge (such as locking my cigarettes and lighter in the car) to get me off the couch and away from danger.
Blunt and plainspoken, Ray Nagin has shown the quality so often missing from our politicians, and the one that made Rudy Giuliani a hero after 9/11: basic humanity. Just as interesting as the media’s rediscovered spine is the lack of insight or feeling shown by federal officials and politicians in responding to the interrogations. Michael Brown of FEMA pleads ignorance regarding the refugees at the Superdome and Convention Center, claiming FEMA didn’t know how extreme those situations had become. This despite round-the-clock televised reports from exactly those locales a full four days after Katrina made landfall. Director of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff is even lousier at expressing a realistic assessment of why the refugees were abandoned: Within hours of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s “desperate SOS,” Chertoff drivels, “the Department of Defense has performed magnificently, as has the National Guard, in bringing enormous resources and capabilities to bear in the areas that are suffering.” Though the horse had bolted days earlier, there was Chertoff, slamming the barn doors shut and proudly displaying the locks.
Nagin is one of the few politicians so far who has earned respect for his efforts. Blunt and plainspoken, he’s shown the quality so often missing from our politicians, and the one that made Rudy Giuliani a hero after 9/11: basic humanity. He seems as agonized as his city, and the simple fact that under extreme duress he demands immediate help instead of interminable promises shows him refreshingly normal. His remonstrations touch the same nerve many of us feel watching the delayed or inadequate rescue efforts. The same can’t be said for other politicians: Congressmen try to show their common bonds to the suffering people of the Gulf Coast, but the effect is strained and off-kilter. Though I often dream scientists have achieved an intravenous serum (composed of blood thinners and massive doses of chocolate ice cream) that will assist legislative members in pretending they still possess actual emotions, the injection has yet to prove a 100 percent success. The serum has been particularly ineffective in Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, who shocks and horrifies everyone when he says New Orleans could never be rebuilt as it used to be and that, “It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed.”
Hastert has a point—the city will never be the same—but his remarks are callous in the extreme, and in a country where eminent domain rules, bulldozers could also mean residents may never see anything for their old homes. New Orleans will be ripe for a wave of carpetbaggers unseen since the Civil War, when Union General Benjamin Butler (nicknamed both “Spoons” for all the personal goods his boys stole and “Beast” for the constant rapine under his occupation) set up shop in the Big Easy and made an underground fortune in illicit cotton sales. Even worse, Rush Limbaugh as much as boasts of a corporate buyout of ruined properties on his Aug. 31 radio show, braying that it wouldn’t be the whiny likes of the Sierra Club or other environmentalists that help rebuild the city as much as beatific philanthropists from Wal-Mart, Anheuser Busch, and the Ford Motor Company. New Orleans has always been known for a certain laissez-faire attitude, but in the aftermath of the storm it may become as wide open as HBO’s Deadwood. I only hope displaced residents don’t feel the same as that show’s Calamity Jane when she curses a conniving hotelier, “Fuck you and fuck the rooms you rent.” For the moment, the only real-estate consolation is that Trent Lott’s house in Pascagoula, Miss., has also been wiped out. If there’s any justice in the world, the NAACP will wield eminent domain to claim the place as its own.
Americans remain stiff-necked about admitting racism or that a class system even exists in our great democratic experiment—never mind how entwined the two matters are. The destruction of Lott’s house aside, race has certainly become an aspect of the blame game as well. The Congressional Black Caucus calls out the Bush Administration, claiming that relief efforts were, umm, a bit less than prioritized because most of those abandoned in the Superdome and Convention Center were poor blacks. Jesse Jackson not only seconds the racial aspects of the situation but goes on to comment about the lack of available helicopters due to the fact so many of the heavy aircraft needed to airlift victims and bring in supplies were off in Iraq. Hip-hop artist Kanye West is the most outspoken of all during the nationally televised concert for hurricane relief when he goes completely off-script and declares, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
Such harsh questions are sneered away by conservative talk mongers, who say it’s “playing the race card,” as though charges of racism in America are merely a cheesy magician’s marked ace up the sleeve. The same often goes for questions of class, and Americans remain stiff-necked about admitting racism or that a class system even exists in our great democratic experiment—never mind how entwined the two matters are. Despite the seemingly incontrovertible images on television, ones that show the vast majority of those abandoned and dying with no authority in sight (aside from Harry Connick, Jr., that is, who shows himself a wonder during these trials) are black, still, the race question remains a non-factor so far as Limbaugh and others go. All one can suppose is that they must be able to afford some newfangled form of television set, one that’s neither color, nor black and white.
Whatever the color of the skin in them, the images aren’t likely to become any more palatable. The body count has only just begun, and like the old battlefields of Europe, corpses are likely to be discovered months and possibly even years from now. Future headlines will be of doubtful comfort as well. The Houston Chronicle reports that Kellogg, Brown & Root—the same subsidiary of Halliburton that was handed a no-bid oil field contract in Iraq and has subsequently been charged with gross discrepancies in its accounts—has won the contract to help rebuild Gulf Coast refineries. It’s funny how much Halliburton is beginning to resemble the vindictive narrator of Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind”: They can’t help it if they’re lucky. As bad as the news has been or will become, at least for a short while we’ve been preserved from Rumsfeld’s robotic war briefings: Listening to Rummy respond to questions regarding the length and outcome of the war is like listening to C-3PO if C-3PO were a belligerent asshole.
At this moment, my saving grace is in the photos from the French Quarter, where the annual gay-themed Decadence Parade is going on despite (or because of) everything. The best picture shows a cardboard sign that reads, “Life Goes On?” If ever there were a case of a skeleton raising up to flip the undertaker a tip, this is it, and in the midst of a tragedy as close to unspeakable as possible, the only question truly worth asking.