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Hurricane Katrina and the Sin of Omission

27 Nov 2005

On Saturday afternoon, I sat in a coffee shop in the Annex, part people watching, part writing. As my gaze focused on the two-storey buildings that stood on each corner of the intersection, I thought about what would happen if a sudden rush of water from a hurricane suddenly flooded the streets. The water would eventually rise to hide the street-level doorways and the shoppers would be swept away in ten-foot high tides. I thought about how I would get home, thankful that I know how to swim, but could I swim five miles in murky, cold water?

Sometimes putting things in perspective by thinking how you would react to a situation helps in times of sadness and confusion. Where would I go if there were no power and electricity? If I had no money to immediately evacuate Toronto, I would probably drown. My body, along with the other hapless pedestrians who also drowned would simply float away.

But if I did survive, I might be homeless, jobless and my precious pet and I would starve to death, as all the grocery and convenient stores would be irreparably damaged.

It is because of this that my heart is filled with uncontrollable rage when I see the media coverage of the people who were not able to evacuate New Orleans last Monday. Never in my lifetime have I witnessed such a disaster in North America. Touted the “richest country in the world,” it certainly is not rich with humanity or morality. The media reports that labelled the poor and the black in New Orleans as ‘refugees’, conveniently forgot that they are Americans and supposedly have the same rights and liberties of everyone else.

When the Tsunami destroyed parts of South Asia, the world came together to help rebuild. It was understood by all that the areas hit had destroyed the already poor countries. Let’s hope we see the same global support for New Orleans. But will we?

Hurricane Katrina was also a natural disaster, but according to Editor & Publisher, an American magazine, since the late 1960’s the city of New Orleans had requested monies to improve the levees that would protect the city, situated 10 feet below sea level. In 1995, $430 million from the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project (SELA) was spent to rebuild the levees that surrounded the city, along with $50 million in local aid. The city still required $250 million from the Federal Government to finish up the crucial aspects and complete the project. But by 2003, they never received the funds because the money was used for the Iraqi War. New Orleans, despite the legendary annual Mardi Gras Festival, is one of the poorest cities in the Unites States.

The subtitle of this commentary, “The Sin of Omission” is borrowed from African-American Senator Carol Moseley-Braun. When asked by a CNN reporter if the problem of the seeming lack of immediate help from the Federal Government in the days and hours before hurricane Katrina had to do with racism, she replied: “No. It is the sin of omission. They don’t see them [the black victims]; they don’t think about them.” Privilege dictates that the majority rules. And anything that doesn’t fall under that is devalued.

I am outraged that the media is sexing up footage of African-Americans that populate 67% of the city; police officers aiming their guns at desperate black people instead of reaching out to help them get out of the city. How the media portrays the black survivors as thieves, looters and prone to violence as they scrounge abandoned business for food, diapers and electronic items to barter with, while white folks who are doing the same thing are, as quoted by columnist Jimi Izrael (of Black Voices) simply ‘finding food.’ [See AP and AFP image captions here]

From scanning several message boards, the power of white privilege is alive and well among us common people. On one web site, geared for American journalists, the response was especially disturbing. One black female journalist posted a message countering the many opinions of posters who felt that the black people who were filmed running out of abandoned stores should be arrested and jailed. She was then accused of playing “the race card”(a common term used to deflect any residual feelings of white guilt), and then, someone decided to take some personal jabs at her, insinuating that she couldn’t spell, contesting her use of “African-American.” So, what’s your point? How dare she not agree with your views! This is similar to the comments of Torontonians (via talk radio) demanding that police arrest and jail everyone who lived in low-income housing projects in areas subjected to gun violence.

That is the power of white privilege. The power to deflect and conveniently ignore a reality that doesn’t match your mainstream white experience. When Moseley Braun mentioned that she had heard rumours of recovered bodies in New Orleans being buried in a mass grave instead of properly identifying them and notifying their families, it conjured up the scary idea that African-Americans could be treated like Iraqis under Saddam Hussein. There is now a Third World country in our midst.

The poor tend to live in the inner cities or areas designed to keep them away from the eyes of tourists. We can even conveniently forget that they exist. This is what I believe is one of the major problems for the people who were not able to leave Mississippi and New Orleans before the hurricane. But instead of investigating the wide divide between the poor, the elderly and the sick who could not leave the city because of lack of resources, and the rich, who have the personal funds to evacuate. In typical capitalist fashion, the poor are being blamed for their perceived ineptitude.

So is the delayed action of providing services an example of the racial and class division that permeates the American fabric? I believe it is. As early as this Sunday morning, CNN reported that not enough buses had been provided to ship all of the stranded people to a healthier environment. People who were interviewed, including the mayor of New Orleans wondered if it was simply a lack of organisation or whether it was done on purpose. Added on with an outbreak of dysentery in shelters in Mississippi, people are still dying because of the contaminated water that is filled with human sewage because there is still a lack of filtered water being distributed to those who seek refuge.

So next time – if there is a next time – you want to travel to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, look outside of Bourbon Street and think about the residents, carefully hidden away from sight. If you want to lie on a beach in Jamaica in Ocho Rios, think about the poor residents living in the hills or the slums of Jamaica, and think about how all the money from tourism never makes it to the poor.  And for us ‘fortunate’ black Canadians, pray for our people in the South who are sick, struggling and dying, punished from the lack of interest and compassion from the “richest country in the world.”

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