When the Twin Towers fell, George Bush and his folks wasted very little time (give or take seven minutes reading a children’s book) in deciding that this act of seemingly unimaginable violence needed resolve and force, and that showing strength would unify the American people. Even I wanted to rally around him that afternoon. He hadn’t done anything awful yet, and I was willing to give the man a chance if he could show me and the rest of my city that he would do what it took (a vague phrase our president is in love with) to try to pull New York out of the depths of tragedy. But after a little while, when Ground Zero became little more than an eerie tourist attraction to those not directly influenced by 9/11, Bush shifted his focus to far more distant ventures, tasks that are much easier to hide with distance and propaganda. I quickly lost my faith in the man from Crawford. But as reprehensible as this was, especially considering that Bush and his team ignored clearly marked data regarding oncoming aggression from Al-Qaeda, it is nowhere near as despicable or disheartening as their reaction (if you can call it that) to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.
There was a brief moment when it appeared New Orleans was going to be spared somewhat, since our ever-so-precise meteorology had been mistaken, and Katrina was a category 4, not 5. Yet the city of New Orleans, which has always been beautiful and pleasant to visit for those with means while dangerous for those without, was, for lack of a better phrase, a disaster waiting to happen. Before the storm struck, those of us in the Northeast were shown fairly depressing pictures of faceless hordes stuck in never-ending traffic to leave the city. But it wasn’t until the levees broke and the city was flooded that we realized how many people couldn’t flee. Yes, some people chose to stay, as is the case with all disasters, but as you can assume that everyone with a means of transportation got out of dodge, New Orleans is a city where almost a third of the residents do not have cars. Unlike Chicago, or any of the metropolitan areas in the northeast, the public transportation system is not exactly convenient for leaving town. Before the water rushed in (according to blacknews.com), poor residents “had a deep sense that they were in a race against time to do something to combat the looming poverty crisis.” Of course, poverty often begets violence, and in New Orleans there have been over 260 homicides so far this year. (In New York City, which is 16 times the size of New Orleans, there were 572 homicides in all of 2004.)
However, one can’t blame Bush for everything, easy as it may be. Though it’s difficult to solve a problem as large as poverty, we must point the finger at some city and state leaders who ignored the impoverished before the storm as much as Bush did afterwards. If they had done more to bring attention to the devastation, perhaps more funding would have been given to the levees that were known to be faulty. Imagine if it had actually been a category 5 hurricane. But we’ll never know what would have happened in that situation. The levees are gone and the city is half underwater.
No one could have expected Bush to arrive in the city right after the floods started. You can’t fly into a city during a hurricane, even if you’re as powerful as Bush likes to have us perceive him. But as the homes were washed away and we began to see footage of dark people standing on roofs waving at helicopters, Bush was giving one of his pep talks to a crowd of sailors in California. Unlike the “My Pet Goat” situation, Bush was self-assured and confident during his speech and photo-op, and everyone in California was very happy. And then, because he’d successfully packed 35 days of rest into 33, Bush decided to cut short his vacation and fly over the affected area, which doesn’t really help anyone do anything except know that Bush really didn’t know what was going on. Bush has acknowledged that the federal response was unacceptable, which isn’t the same thing as admitting that he himself made a mistake, because he’s physically unable to do so. Unlike 9/11, when it was easy to throw out terms like “evildoers” and “terrorists” and will people into taking his side, Bush only has the option of blaming the local and state officials, which looks much worse than blaming faceless murderers, besides being dishonest and underhanded. There was a point, about a year ago, when Bush and his team were eager to gain favor among African-Americans, who have traditionally stayed as far away from the Right as possible, but once the election was finished, the administration returned to satisfying themselves and their cronies, attempting to push their ambitious agenda through the senate and thus trying to ensure that their stranglehold on the nation doesn’t loosen.
Bush has always been obsessed wit h his warrior image, even though he hid from combat during Vietnam, and told the world that the conflict in Iraq was over more than two years ago, as bodies continue to stream in, largely unacknowledged by the Pentagon. When Bush finally decided to land in Louisiana, he made a typically declarative statement, expressing confidence that “We will succeed!” This ignores the fact that it would be impossible to call any of this a success. But Bush and his people were probably satisfied after generating another useless soundbite for mindless followers to swallow. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine the administration acting like Brendan Fraser’s character in “Crash” and searching for a way to get Bush pictured with a smiling Negro. And sure enough, on the cover of the New York Post, with Bush’s “We will succeed” quote plastered under it, was a picture of our President eating a sandwich somewhat near a young black person, who may or may not have been smiling. The way this administration persists in sweeping things under the rug (WMDs, Abu Gharib, you name it, they’ve got it) instead of actually cleaning up after themselves boggles the mind.
Similarly, when certain conservatives blame the citizens of New Orleans themselves for being unprepared, I’m also perturbed. New Orleans is a city built about ten feet below sea level, which may have been a slightly foolish decision, but the people who live there now can’t change the past. As is the case in most places, those with funds tend to move away from those without, and in New Orleans, this means that the well-off have moved to higher ground, leaving many of the people who can’t afford cars in the most vulnerable areas. It’s the same scenario you see all over the planet: when disaster strikes, the underprivileged suffer the most. But most of the time, disaster doesn’t strike so close to home, and we shake our heads, and hope whatever far-off country it is can rebuild. Yet when it happens in the United States, in a place that’s supposed to be powerful enough to fix everyone else’s problems, we realize there has to have been some grievous mistake that allows us, or our brethren to have been placed so directly in harm’s way. So, we rescue, and we do what it takes to help those who can’t help themselves, because it’s the right thing to do, and because it needs to be done. If only our president had done the same, we wouldn’t have to clean up another one of his messes.
(Post Script: I know Bush made an extremely belated speech on the 15th, and that he did, in a roundabout way, say that the federal government made mistakes, but if you saw the speech, you know he was simply setting himself up to seem like a savior just like he did four years ago. But this time, no amount of money can make the Gulf Coast disaster seem like it’s anyone else’s fault but his.)