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New Orleans Relief Bracelets Go On Sale

an unprepared for and unnecessary catastrophe

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, August 31, 2005.

President Bush says that now that the catastrophe has hit, government should swing into action and help people. I say, government’s job was to prevent catastrophes like Katrina, and to be prepared. It’s so American, wanting to be the hero and rescue survivors rather than the engineer to prevent the need.

I suppose some of you recall the scandal in 2002 when the Atlantic published a tale about Ground Zero in Manhattan. Among the claims was that a fire truck was found with stacked blue jeans, and therefore firemen had engaged in looting. Looting is hardly unknown in such situations, but the widow of Stephen Jay Gould took offense, and amassed evidence that this was not so. Neither side produced utterly irrefutable evidence, and some people clearly have given indications of changing their story. I believe it in the main, and would agree with William Langewiesche that in such circumstances – a war zone – looting is almost unavoidable and of dubious criminality.

It did sully the reputation of the fire department, but they and also the police – led by crook and failed Bush appointee Bernie Kerik – had lathered themselves in such heroic auras that such reality did us all some good. For example, the New York Police and Fire Departments have changed hardly anything about how they would attempt a high rise rescue again. Same defective remote communications – no pre-positioning of equipment to negate the need of rushing eighty floors…….to do what, by the way? A lot of grandstanding, but neither the public safety guys nor the civilians are any better off.

Is looting ever of dubious criminality? Rarely, but yes. Look at it this way. Would clothing stores lost in the WTC spend time or money sorting through recovered merchandise or would they have just written off the entire store? And once that is done, who owns the remaining merchandise? The insurance companies, and it doesn’t look like they spent a lot of time investigating the actual fate of watches and clothing either. It is, after all, an open question whether that stuff, covered in asbestos dust and lord knows what else, could be legally used at all.

I dwell on this because of the horror unfolding in New Orleans. The municipal government is inept and had no ability to move people out of the city after it ordered a mandatory evacuation. There is only one road out of the city today. Worse, it is a cess pit of corpses, household and industrial toxins, water snakes, floating balls of red ants, and alligators. There is no organized way to get people out and no way to feed those trapped there. That Winn-Dixie is being pillaged and other stores looted should be judged against whether the owners had or have any intention of selling the merchandise or writing it off. Some hoped for both, no doubt.

But the media is dwelling on looting. One of the reasons is that it’s a news template of blacks rioting and looting, from Watts and Chicago and Detroit in the 1960’s, and most of the poor in New Orleans are black. Some of it is indeed simple theft from places that weren’t wet yet, but as of this writing, the water is still rising, the people have no homes, no food, no transportation despite all the dramatic announcements, and no money in any case. A few may now. Nobody is getting rich on this. They’re getting by.

We've been aware of New Orleans’ inevitable horror for decades, and absolutely nothing sufficient was done about it. The levees, now broken and filling the city, were supposedly designed to protect against a Category Three hurricane, yet Katrina was only a Two when it hit. It’s a major port, crucial to the nation. Shouldn’t everything have been better and higher?

Listening to Haley Barbour, the Governor of Mississippi, and Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans yesterday, I have the feeling that Southern corruption and conservative hatred of taxes has taken a hit. There seems to be no means to find out how many people are dead or missing without counting bodies, even in general terms. This, after an event long predicted.

New York had a national catastrophe where mostly white people may have looted. This was tamped down and after years of melodrama, the city is no better prepared than it was September 10, 2001. After all: what would those firemen to do after carrying all that crap up to 90th floor? There was no water pressure.

The Gulf Coast just had a long predicted catastrophe for which evidence shows no realistic preparations had been made despite previous hurricanes and floods. But the looters are black, so let’s focus on that moral breakdown of American society and not on the hugely corrupt and incompetent governments along the Gulf coast for a half century.

And in the next few weeks we’ll sob again over those heroic blue-eyed firemen still facing disasters no better prepared. It’s so American. Don’t teach birth control, fight abortion. Don’t prepare for mathematical certainty, worship the melodrama of numerically insufficient rescues.