Flood of Shame

Aug. 28, 2005, may go down as a turning point in American history. Or at least it should.

That was when the shame of the nation's long history of racism and its disregard of the poor was once again laid bare for the American public -- as the flood waters rose, nearly 80% of New Orleans was left under water and thousands of residents, most of them poor and black, were left to the most inhumane conditions imaginable.

Hurricane Katrina should be remembered as the storm that ripped the rose-tinted glasses from America's eyes with images of deprivation and despair that most of us would never have imagined could take place in an American city.

The facts are fairly straightforward. Katrina was a Category 5 hurricane and was bearing down on the Gulf Coast. It made landfall on Aug. 28 as a Category 4 storm and left severe damage and flooding in its wake across the region.

It also offered a hard-to-ignore illustration of the divisions that remain in American society.

"Hurricane Katrina was more than a natural disaster," Boston Globe columnist James Carroll wrote on Sept. 5. "It was a political epiphany, laying bare difficult truths from which, mainly, the United States has been in flight. Most obviously, the flooding of the cities and towns along the Gulf Coast has pulled a curtain back on a huge population of desperately impoverished people. The Other America, as Michael Harrington called it a generation ago, has shown itself as hardly ever before. The wealthiest nation on earth has its hidden legion of have-nots, and all at once the rest of us saw them. The scandal of rank poverty was exposed, and if beholding it was like seeing something indecent, that's because such poverty in this nation is exactly that -- indecent."

New Orleans is 67% black, with 27.9% of the city's residents living below the federal poverty line. And, as Jack Shafer noted in Slate, the counties most affected by the hurricane were between 25% and 89% African-American. The upshot is that -- as Shafer wrote -- "Katrina didn't hit all folks equally."

The poor were hit especially hard, as Gary Younge pointed out in the London daily the Guardian. "The fact that the vast majority of those who remained in town were black was not an accident," he wrote Sept. 5. "Katrina did not go out of its way to affect black people. It destroyed almost everything in its path. But the poor were disproportionately affected because they were least able to escape its path and to endure its wrath. They are more likely to have bad housing and less likely to have cars. Many had to work until the last moment and few have the money to pay for a hotel out of town."

Wil Haygood talked with many of those left behind for a story in the Washington Post. The people left behind in the flood, those who were unable to evacuate and were forced either to stay in their flooding homes or to take their chances in places like the Superdome or the Civic Center, were those for whom "their nickels and dimes and dollar bills simply didn't add up to stage a quick evacuation mission."

The New Orleans residents interviewed by Haygood for his Sept. 4 piece all told similar stories: They were "living paycheck to paycheck," they didn't own cars, didn't have the cash to pay for airfare or a hotel for themselves, let alone for their children or parents.

"These people look at us and wonder why we stayed behind," Carmita Stephens told Haygood. "Well, would they leave their grandparents and children behind?"

The stories being told by the survivors should not be seen as unusual or extraordinary. There remain, even at this late date in US history, far too many people living "paycheck to paycheck," far too many who would likely find themselves forced to answer the same questions as those asked of the thousands warehoused at the Superdome and the New Orleans Civic Center.

The poverty level is on the rise -- up to 12.7%, the US Census Bureau reports, or about one out of every eight Americans. As Robert Scheer pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, "since 1999, the income of the fifth-poorest of Americans has dropped 8.7% in inflation-adjusted dollars. Last year alone, 1.1 million were added to the 36 million already on the poverty rolls."

A half-century in which "free-market purists have to great effect denigrated the essential role that modern government performs as some terrible liberal plot" has taken its toll, he wrote.

"For decades we have seen social services that benefit everyone -- education, community policing, public health, environmental protections and infrastructure repair, emergency services -- in steady, steep decline in the face of tax cuts and rising military spending."

And now, the people of New Orleans and its surrounding parishes and counties are paying the price.

It's only a matter of time before the rest of us are forced to pay it, as well.

Hank Kalet writes from New Jersey. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Oct. 1, 2005

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