August 28, 2010
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast of the United States. Tomorrow is, of course, the fifth anniversary of that horrific compilation of human misery and degradation. I was not there. I lived several states away and only watched in stunned silence, as millions of other Americans did, what happened –particularly in New Orleans – for an inexcusably long time to the poorest and most disadvantaged people of that city. I wish I could say I understand what they felt, but nothing in my life – as up and down as it has been at times – even comes close to what happened to those left in New Orleans. Their faces still haunt me.
We Americans are used to seeing such scenes of suffering and unmet needs in other countries, to other people. Nothing in the sixty-five years I’d lived up to that time prepared me for the realization that it could happen here. So, the first lesson I learned from Katrina was that it could happen – was happening – here in America, right before my eyes. With it has come a growing uneasiness, over this last five years, that it could/would happen again – perhaps to people I know and love, to me.
I’ve never considered myself naïve about human rights here in America or believed in the inherent goodness of our government. I grew up in a time when blacks were still widely considered – and treated as – inferiors, women of every color were often blamed for the rapes and abuses they endured, gays (and abuse against them) weren’t even acknowledged in polite society, enabled, of course, by governments – local, state and federal – that simply ignored what was going on. I came to know of our government’s malignant role in exposing some of our own soldiers and citizens to radiation during atomic testing in the fifties, in overthrowing legitimate governments from Iran to Chile, in aiding and abetting the corporate rape of smaller, undeveloped countries. These things were done, for the most part, in secret and to “others”, often while the government openly told its citizens the opposite. Most of us only learned about them well after they had happened.
What happened in Katrina, however, did not happen in secret. It was done, in fact, so openly – while for days, all across the country, ordinary Americans screamed, “Look, LOOK WHAT’S HAPPENING; these people need help NOW” – I couldn’t help but feel a deliberate malevolence had been enacted on those people, our people, by our own government.
The events of 9/11 had raised niggling questions about whether parts of the government had a role in it – through deliberately or inadvertently ignoring the many warnings or worse. Although I felt the Afghan war was like attacking a swarm of mosquitoes with a cannon, it had a certain “logic” to it. Afghanistan, after all, had harbored the terrorists who attacked us. The rush into the Patriot Act and the Iraq War set off more alarm bells. I know propaganda when I hear it and we were being massively propagandized over a country that, as far as I could ascertain, had nothing to do with 9/11.
In the aftermath of Katrina, there were some, at all level of government, who stayed or came in and did their jobs. Some in the military and Coast Guard, doctors, nurses, paramedics and ordinary citizens alike worked, often heroically, to save the city and its people when others had abandoned it.
But my government, at its highest levels, watched an American city drown and its most vulnerable people suffer in unspeakable squalor and deprivation for nearly a week, while government officials propagandized and patted each other on the back for a job well done. That changed those alarm bells to the insistent clang of a fire alarm. The second thing I learned from Katrina was don’t believe anything the government tells you about what they’re doing and why, until you can figure out for yourself where the facts lie.
I lived most of my childhood in a comfortable lower middle class neighborhood. Both my father and stepmother had to work to maintain it, but we never really went without. Much of my adult life, I’ve been on the cusp between lower middle class and working poor. While I raised my son by myself, especially during periods of recession, I often slipped from one to the other. I spent a year in government-subsidized housing. My neighbors were black, white, Hispanic, but all of us were poor – most of us were working poor. Even when I’d slipped back across that cusp, I lived in racially, ethnically and economically mixed neighborhoods. I do today. I feel comfortable there and I’ve never had reason to be afraid of my neighbors. Maybe that’s why what happened during Katrina angered me so, left me with such distrust of my own government. Those people were my neighbors, my friends, me and for a week, in plain sight, the government abandoned them. Why?
Over the five years since Katrina, I’ve read widely trying to understand what happened and, especially, why it happened – Chalmers Johnston’s trilogy, Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis; Steve Koll’s book, Ghost Wars, on Afghanistan; Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine:The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and other books too numerous to mention. They paint a rather ugly picture of a government – of both parties – and a financial and corporate world besotted by their own greed, love of Empire and the power it has brought them.
I’ve also studied peak oil, struggled to keep up with change to the climate and environment and to understand the chaos oscillating through our economic system. The government knows about this triumvirate of doom. Both the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, and perhaps other departments within government, as well as various groups in Congress have commissioned or done reports on the dangers we face from all three.
I’d hoped, I suppose, that with the election of President Obama and a Democratic Congress, this greed and love of Empire had been a republican thing. Of course, it wasn’t. Nothing brought that home so clearly as watching this government talk tough over BP’s disastrous oil spill in the Gulf this year, while seeming to aid and abet BP’s hard work to cover its own ass and limit its liabilities. The minute the cap was on the well and the oil stopped gushing, it was back to business as usual. As far as I can ascertain, even though we’ve been told the exact opposite, 80% of the oil is still there in one form or another and we’ve barely acknowledged the effects that may go on – in ways still poorly understood – for generations. It brought back, with alarming clarity, the third thing I learned from Katrina, even though it took a long time to percolate up into my consciousness. In the next crisis, and we’re circling the drain right now on several potential doozies, we are on our own. They will offer as much help – and only as much help – as it takes to keep the pot of anger, frustration and resentment from boiling over. They will do what it takes to cover their asses; they will, at all costs, try to maintain their own power. I think the nature of these impending crises, given that triumvirate of doom I mentioned above, will make this increasingly more difficult for this government, military, corporate alliance.
Maybe the infighting will keep them busy enough that, on our own, we can quietly work together, help each other and generally stay out of the way while they fight it out. That’s what many of those who survived Katrina have done over the last five years, with help from compassionate individuals, rich and poor. I suppose, that’s the final lesson I learned from Katrina.