New Orleans crisis shames Americans
At the end of an unforgettable week, one broadcaster on Friday bitterly encapsulated the sense of burning shame and anger that many American citizens are feeling.
The only difference between the chaos of New Orleans and a Third World disaster operation, he said, was that a foreign dictator would have responded better.
It has been a profoundly shocking experience for many across this vast country who, for the large part, believe the home-spun myth about the invulnerability of the American Dream.
The party in power in Washington is always happy to convey the impression of 50 states moving forward together in social and economic harmony towards a bigger and better America.
That is what presidential campaigning is all about.
But what the devastating consequences of Katrina have shown — along with the response to it — is that for too long now, the fabric of this complex and overstretched country, especially in states like Louisiana and Mississippi, has been neglected and ignored.
The fitting metaphors relating to the New Orleans debacle are almost too numerous to mention.
First there was an extraordinary complacency, mixed together with what seemed like over-reaction, before the storm.
A genuinely heroic mayor orders a total evacuation of the city the day before Katrina arrives, knowing that for decades now, New Orleans has been living on borrowed time.
The National Guard and federal emergency personnel stay tucked up at home.
The havoc of Katrina had been predicted countless times on a local and federal level — even to the point where it was acknowledged that tens of thousands of the poorest residents would not be able to leave the city in advance.
No official plan was ever put in place for them.
Abandoned to the elements
The famous levees that were breached could have been strengthened and raised at what now seems like a trifling cost of a few billion dollars.
The Bush administration, together with Congress, cut the budgets for flood protection and army engineers, while local politicians failed to generate any enthusiasm for local tax increases.
New Orleans partied-on just hoping for the best, abandoned by anyone in national authority who could have put the money into really protecting the city.
Meanwhile, the poorest were similarly abandoned, as the horrifying images and stories from the Superdome and Convention Center prove.
The truth was simple and apparent to all. If journalists were there with cameras beaming the suffering live across America, where were the officers and troops?
The neglect that meant it took five days to get water, food, and medical care to thousands of mainly orderly African-American citizens desperately sheltering in huge downtown buildings of their native city, has been going on historically, for as long as the inadequate levees have been there.
I should make a confession at this point: I have been to New Orleans on assignment three times in as many years, and I was smitten by the Big Easy, with its unique charms and temperament.
But behind the elegant intoxicants of the French Quarter, it was clearly a city grotesquely divided on several levels. It has twice the national average poverty rate.
The government approach to such deprivation looked more like thoughtless containment than anything else.
The nightly shootings and drugs-related homicides of recent years pointed to a small but vicious culture of largely black-on-black crime that everyone knew existed, but no-one seemed to have any real answers for.
Again, no-one wanted to pick up the bill or deal with the realities of race relations in the 21st Century.
Too often in the so-called “New South”, they still look positively 19th Century.
“Shoot the looters” is good rhetoric, but no lasting solution.
It is astonishing to me that so many Americans seem shocked by the existence of such concentrated poverty and social neglect in their own country.
In the workout room of the condo where I am currently staying in the affluent LA neighbourhood of Santa Monica, an executive and his personal trainer ignored the anguished television reports blaring above their heads on Friday evening.
Either they did not care, or it was somehow too painful to discuss.
When President Bush told “Good Morning America” on Thursday morning that nobody could have “anticipated” the breach of the New Orleans levees, it pointed to not only a remote leader in denial, but a whole political class.
The uneasy paradox which so many live with in this country — of being first-and-foremost rugged individuals, out to plunder what they can and paying as little tax as they can get away with, while at the same time believing that America is a robust, model society — has reached a crisis point this week.
Will there be real investment, or just more buck-passing between federal agencies and states?
The country has to choose whether it wants to rebuild the levees and destroyed communities, with no expense spared for the future — or once again brush off that responsibility, and blame the other guy.