Sunday, June 1, 2008

Our Hurricane

(September, 2005)

Eventually the story of hurricane Katrina is going to be reduced to a simple affair. Taking the long view – looking back, say, from two or three hundred years – I think the first thing historians will say about it is that there is no shame in a nation being hit by a hurricane. They will say that no nation, no city, recovers from one in four days, or in three. The first issue of the Economist, afterward, pointed out that the storm wreaked havoc over an area the size of Britain: have we forgotten what foreign-born historians tend to say about the sweep of American history very early on in their accounts, namely that for us, things tend to begin and end with this vicious climate?

Historians two or three hundred years from now will no doubt make good use of all our primary sources and they will note the things that today’s observers are beginning to note. New Orleans is built in a soup bowl. The levees might have been expected to break – the levees did break. The hardest-hit areas were populated by the poorest people, those least able to get out before disaster. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was swallowed up by the new Homeland Security Department shortly after September 11, 2001, and its employees and its tasks became, as a result, confused about what to do during an emergency that was obviously not a terrorist attack on the homeland. New Orleans’ mayor refused federal requests that he evacuate the city; even better, the whole political climate of New Orleans and Louisiana has been a mess since the days of Huey Long. (Ask anyone under sixty who on earth Huey Long was. Most of us will think of one of Donald Duck’s nephews, and anyone under twenty-five may not think of that.)

Future historians will take note of other ideas, other complaints. There were not enough National Guard troops on hand to help maintain order because they were all (pointlessly or not, depending on the historian’s view) in Iraq. Years of stopping the Mississippi from flooding and naturally creating the islands and sand bars that it should, and which used to help protect the coast from Gulf storms, will be noted as blamable as well. Two hundred years from now, historians will have to decide whether or not George Bush was responsible for it all. Who knows? They may believe he was, or they may stand with some bewilderment before the notion that it was even thought of. They may face, with a similar bewilderment, the contemporary idea that Katrina was the first racist weather system in history.

But above all, they will see this: that for most of the United States, and for all the world, the hurricane was a two-dimensional affair. The first pictures were the fun ones, as usual. Palm trees bent double, a man in a raincoat leaning against the wind. Here in my suburb of Chicago, it did produce something tangible. It produced a cool summer evening of strangely wintry-looking, torn and low-lying, but blue-gray and beautiful, scudding clouds. They streamed over us from the north, which seemed strange. Perhaps my memory is faulty. It has already been nearly two weeks.

Apart from that, it was a two-dimensional, television and newspaper experience. And there is our problem. There is the source of the screaming headlines about shame and shock and slow response. Future historians will say that, above all, the pictures of the hurricane’s aftermath presented the American public, and especially presented the journalists looking through the cameras’ eyes, with a story they found psychologically unacceptable. The pictures looked like they must tell a story of (mostly) black Americans’ helplessness, not in the face of disaster, but in the face of survival. The woman shouting in the corridor of the Superdome, on the first day or maybe the second at most: "Get us out of here!" The refrain spoken so often: "They’re not doing anything for us." By the third or fourth day, stories of beatings and rapes inside the Superdome, stories of shots fired at rescue helicopters; people inside the dome banding together to keep policemen out.

We can’t have this. That the human personality should, after a poleaxing, unravel in four days is no doubt not at all unprecedented. It's not inevitable, but it's not unprecedented. But that it should take place on camera among a population mostly of American blacks is unacceptable. It cannot be. The story must be something else. It must be made to be something else. The Chicago Tribune printed a letter to the editor on Thursday the 1st, in which a reader scolded "media outlets" about the need to be careful about printing stories and pictures of black looters.

That same week, the front page carried the first headline – below the fold, to be sure – charging racism in the lack of aid to New Orleans. If whites were drowning, so the claim went, the nation would care, and more would have already have been done. I doubt it, and I think future historians will doubt it. Explain how it would have been possible to ship, at a minimum and just for a start, a gallon of clean water a day to 10,000 people in the Superdome? Immediately, on the first day? Through the "few open roads"? And then more water on the second, when there were (so we were told) 20,000 people there? And the third, when the number was (perhaps?) 30,000?

No. The story has had to become one of "class," or the "shockingly slow" response, or Bush’s incompetence, or FEMA’s incompetence, or "America’s deep racial divide," because the story as we all first experienced it looked so appallingly unlike the creed we’ve memorized about the way things are supposed to be. Everybody is supposed to be equal, not only in the way they are treated, but in the way they behave. No one group is supposed to have a monopoly on dependency and confusion. (Of course, people who have already decided that the new story, about incompetence, is much more to their liking, will laugh at that and roar, "No kidding! Poor Bush!") Young black men are already unfairly stereotyped as trouble – they were not supposed to turn on each other, or on women, or turn weapons on rescue workers in the early days, long before panic or maniac thirst could be alleged as the cause of their behavior.

I have no doubt that many, many of the people who were poleaxed by surviving this tragedy were indeed helpless for reasons that would have made anybody helpless, black or white. Illness, lack of a car, lack of money, age – even dumb human "it won’t be that bad" hope, or good old human "I ain’t leavin’" hubris, and then shock and heat and hunger and fear – would have worked deadly effect in me too. But the pictures that seemed to show people reacting to survival as if they had never known anything but waiting endlessly for services due, and being waited on, are what we, the outsiders, experienced of the hurricane. The stories of stereotypical violence, of pure evil, were what we experienced. The stories cannot be true.

Refashioning, revisionism, is under way, and its speed, the ferocity of its completeness, are good indications of how devastating the pictures were to our carefully fashioned national identity – or at least, to the identity of the good people who help fashion the identity through taking pictures. (Just think how young many of those camera-toters must have been. They have been raised on school-tales of slavery, Harriet Tubman, and freedom marches, and coping and triumphing and happy endings, no matter what your color but especially if you're black. What were they supposed to think? That human beings tend to be distinctly unheroic, quite a lot of the time? That sometimes natural disasters are so bad, there’s nothing anyone can do right away?)

Were the pictures themselves lies, unthinkingly selected racist exaggerations? I don’t think so. The young people behind the cameras have been too well-trained in sensitivity for that. (If they are not leading the volte-face charge to reinterpretation, they are certainly happy to push it along.) We didn’t see too much of black Americans coping quietly with disaster, true. That is the lack that the Tribune’s letter-writer scolded "media outlets" about. That may only have been because chaos makes better news than calm. But the alarming pictures’ having been proofs of deep-seated, bred-in-the-bone malice now seems to have become a part of the new story anyway. Where does the loop of re-interpretation end?

At some point the loop will be cut, but probably not until the distant future. I give it two or three hundred years. Only then will historians be calm enough to look back at this disaster and see some things clearly. A city with a population two-thirds black suffered a terrible storm. Many people were killed, many more survived, or were rescued, or had gotten out beforehand. Things were not back to normal within four days. Worse, there were pictures of the aftermath, and the pictures seemed to tell a story that the nation – or at least its official storytellers – had long since discarded. Displeased and upset, the nation, or at least its storytellers, turned about and created a new story, a familiar moral tale of the humble classes’ blamelessness and want, of the terrible legacy of prejudice, and of typical kingly shirking and coldness. Of things that could have been prevented if only there was no hate. If in the meantime the nation got around to the task of living, spending, and rebuilding after all, that was not something the storytellers felt forced to stop and notice with nearly as much enthusiasm.

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