Thursday, September 01, 2005

Too many questions


My television screen filled with deeply disturbing images Thursday night.

At the New Orleans Convention Center, a woman died in her wheelchair waiting to be rescued. Thousands of people remain there, waiting in fear. Most don’t have food. They don’t have water. They’re being preyed upon by packs of hoodlums roaming the streets. A CNN reporter documented all this by mid-afternoon.
But five hours later, at 8:30 p.m., no one had come to the rescue. No one. Instead, police told the reporter, Chris Lawrence, that it was too dangerous for him to stay on the ground.
Still, CNN’s Paula Zahn managed to interview a woman at the Convention Center by phone. The woman told the network that six corpses lay around her. All the people had died that day. The living are starving, dehydrated, suffering, she said. Yet she told Zahn that no police were patrolling the building. No National Guard had arrived. No Army. No Marines. No food or water had been dropped. No buses or trucks sent in. Why?
Five days have passed since Katrina devastated New Orleans. Many citizen volunteers, Coast Guard rescue teams, local police have performed heroically in the chaos. But where is the coordination, the organization, the resources? Who is in charge on the ground? It took two days for President Bush to leave his vacation in Crawford, Texas. It took a third before he spoke to the nation. He visited some of the stricken area today, but not New Orleans. No. He was scheduled to see that from the air. Does he have a tin ear or does he simply not care?
How can a nation that has spent hundreds of billions of dollars invading Iraq and stationing 138,000 soldiers, Marines and guardsmen there fail so miserably in responding rapidly to a disaster within its borders? Could it be because two-fifths of the Louisiana National Guard is in Iraq? How can we fail so completely to airlift in food and water and to drop enough troops to make sure that food and water is not stolen from the old, the young, the poor and the disabled, suffering and dying outside the New Orleans Convention Center?
It is one thing for people to die in the savagery of a vicious storm or in the silence of their flooded homes. It is another for them to die a slow death four and five days after the storm has passed when they're in plain sight for the TV cameras.
And many, perhaps most, never should have been there. Hurricane Katrina was no secret. It headed toward shore as a catastrophic Category 5 storm and New Orlean’s mayor issued a mandatory evacuation order. But why then didn’t the city and state and federal government back up that order by sending in buses and Army trucks and trains to take people, free of charge, to safety before the storm hit? Everyone knew New Orleans lies below sea level. Everyone knew something horrible was about to unfold. It was just a matter of degree. And if some of the 200,000 estimated to have stayed behind did so out of love of their homes, foolishness, or simple ignorance, plenty didn't leave because they just couldn't. They had no car. They had no money. They had no help.
Would it have been more expensive to get them out beforehand than it is now? Of course not. And, dare I ask, would we still be watching this heart-wrenching story at the Convention Center unfold on television if these people were white and well off instead of black and poor?
I doubt it.


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