Katrina: A Study in Shame, A Lesson Learned

IB Publisher Jody Glynn Patrick blends work and life in this very clear departure from both her column for In Business magazine, and the other bloggers. Awarded national recognition for her previous work as a newspaper columnist, she brings us all back "Closer to Home" with her insights and remembrances. A nice place to be "After Hours." Check back often! Read Full Bio

The situation was, in military lingo, FUBAR. A mother held a half-comatose young toddler: “Look how hot he is,” she sobbed. Her desperation was mirrored in a breaking voice, imploring glances. “He’s not waking up very easy. I’m not … this is not about low income, it’s not about rich people or poor people. It’s about people.”

She begged us to care. About people. And those people caught on television videotape collapsing and dying around her, those people were U.S. citizens — victims of Hurricane Katrina, victims of a failed levee system, and victims of the timidity of the American government’s response to it.

“We need help, sir,” a woman implored a cameraman. “We really do. We need help.” So many people begged for his assistance, pointing to someone dying or abandoned, that this seasoned reporter soon limped back to his camp overwhelmed, a broken man.

“Help, help, help, help, help….” The chanting for help was insistent. Day One, Day Two. Day Three, Day Four. You saw it the same as I did, my friends, on television. And you also saw that for the longest time, absolutely no help arrived. No water. No food. No medical supplies. No hope or promises. Nothing.

Sanitary systems shut down. Social order collapsed, too, as people took to the streets to loot anything they might find to barter for help. A bottle or three of booze to help them cope. Dry shoes.

Images on television of a pleading, begging, angry, looting citizenry were inconsistent with the America I love. Who, in charge, could see those same images of children dying for lack of water, and refuse to lower pallets of water? WHO?

Flashback Upon Flashback
Five years ago, watching Katrina unfold when it was still happening, I felt a rage and bitterness that took me back to the red-hot anguish and welling sadness I felt during the Viet Nam War. We had no problem dropping packages of burning napalm out of planes then — surely by 2005 we could manage airdrops of water packets and military MREs (Meals Ready to Eat).

Dateline NBC took us back to those shameful first five days in New Orleans — a retrospect aired last Sunday evening. Only police officers, with their flashing blue and red strobe lights, had a power source in New Orleans back then. They soon exhausted their own reserves and resources, too, trying in vain to ward off the tide of people crying, collapsing, looting, and trying to steal a car — any car — to get them upland, out of the area, toward clean water.

“Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” [Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner]

TV news anchor Brian Williams reported, in Sunday’s look back at the shameful lack of response from federal emergency responders, “When you come around a corner and see a body facedown in sight of the Superdome on a city street within sight of children and adults walking by it, you know something has come unraveled.”

What happened five years ago is more than these explanatory notes posted on Wikipedia: “Hurricane Katrina formed over the Bahamas on August 23, 2005 and crossed southern Florida as a moderate Category 1 hurricane, causing some deaths and flooding there before strengthening rapidly in the Gulf of Mexico. The storm weakened before making its second landfall as a Category 5 storm on the morning of Monday, August 29 in southeast Louisiana. It caused severe destruction along the Gulf coast from central Florida to Texas, much of it due to the storm surge.

“The most severe loss of life occurred in New Orleans, Louisiana [almost 2,000 died] which flooded as the levee system catastrophically failed, in many cases hours after the storm had moved inland. Eventually 80% of the city and large tracts of neighboring parishes became flooded, and the floodwaters lingered for weeks.”

What happened then was a complete meltdown of our expectations and values. The fact that “nearly five years later, thousands of displaced residents in Mississippi and Louisiana are still living in trailers’ means it isn’t over yet, either.

On Sunday evening’s airing of “Hurricane Katrina: The First Five Days,” Williams described the carnage he saw in New Orleans using terms we most often associate with war-torn countries. In fact, early in the reporting period, media could not, in good conscious, report the news objectively and so it mutated into becoming a witness for the victims. Reporters became (first) the conduit to the rest of the world and (second) the advocate for relief and then (third) vocally angry Americans.

“I think of the babies, I think of the elderly,” Williams remarked. “I think of the people who, just a few days earlier, had their dignity, had their lives, and I can’t get their faces out of my mind. But I shouldn’t, either. They are part of who I am. It was an honor to represent their interests — to do their pleading on national television.”

Day Five: George Bush landed with his security force: “I’m down here to comfort people, I’m down here to let people know that we’re going to work with states and the local folks with a, uh, with a strategy to get this thing solved.” He soon turned to the FEMA director, Michael Brown, showing how out of touch he really was with the public view of what was happening when he said, “And Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

Yep. A heckuva job. A job that one might also say was FUBAR. There subsequently was an investigation of the responses from federal, state and local governments, resulting in the resignation of Federal Emergency Management director Michael D. Brown, and of New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Eddie Compass. A couple bones thrown back to an outraged public.

I certainly felt helpless, at the time that Katrina was still an emerging disaster of unimaginable magnitude. I helped with fundraisers, the extent of my ability at the time to contribute. Now, however, I have pledged to go**, should there be another disaster of that magnitude.

The replaying of the Katrina story reminded me why I feel so urgently the need to get out of the audience and into the cab of a truck to drive, drive, drive — to help get supplies moving. To JUST DO IT. Why? Because I never, ever, want to again feel that level of shame and anger toward my own government. Because I no longer believe the federal government can, or will, respond appropriately. So it falls to all of us, my friends, to be our neighbors’ best hope for water, for food, for shelter.

The silver lining is that I believe we’ll be there. Then, and now, our heros were the National Weather Service and citizens who enlisted in The National Guard. We The People — after all is witnessed and recorded for generations to come — are proud Americans who will not let such a lack of effective response happen to our countrymen and women, our children and our elderly again.

No, not even to our pets.

[**Editor’s note: JGP is our publisher, but also the coordinator for Dane County Salvation Army’s Emergency Disaster Services, and she would be responding to a future disaster situation in the canteen [truck] with a team of Madison-based trained, professional volunteers, many of them from the business community.]

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