Wonkette Book Club: How 'Leaders' Turned Hurricane Katrina Into A Catastrophe
As I mentioned last time, Rebecca Solnit (with an assist from Ursula K. Le Guin's 1974 "ambivalent utopia" The Dispossessed) is turning me into an anarchist, at least a little. And darned if the protests against police brutality haven't spawned an experiment in anarchist self-governance in Seattle, right now. Boy, are the Powers that Be freaked out by that! Interesting times and all that.
As we finish up our discussion of Rebecca Solnit's 2009 A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, I keep coming back to her opening questions: "Who are you? Who are we?" And the implied questions: Who can we become, and how do we get there? Solnit explores the tensions between the human need to take care of each other, and the (generally terrible) tendency of those in power to value order over human needs. Disasters are interesting her because they're situations in which norms of everyday life, power, and governance vanish in chaos, and people have to rely on each other to improvise their own rescue. What I like about Solnit is that she doesn't have any moony notions that everyone is a good person; but frankly, it's reassuring to see so much evidence that most of us are better than we fear. The apocalypse tends to look more like San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake, with people setting up community kitchens and slaughterhouses sharing meat that would otherwise spoil, than it does The Walking Dead.
The problem with sudden disruptions of normality, of course, is that those who were in power before the disaster fear that any disruption at all will lead to chaos and disorder, that people will run riot if order isn't imposed — by force, if need be (See also Seattle right now). And such "elite panic" tends to make the situation far worse. If San Francisco in 1906, Mexico City after the 1985 quake, and civilians rescuing each other on 9/11 demonstrate triumphs of cooperation and mutual aid, then the government response to Hurricane Katrina is elite panic unleashed; that's the focus of the final section of Paradise Born in Hell. The hurricane was a natural disaster, compounded by the human-caused disaster of the levees breaking because they were insufficient to protect the city. The federal, state, and local response, however, turned disaster into needless catastrophe.
The particulars are well-known, from terrible planning in advance of the storm, to the botched federal response ("Heckuva job, Brownie"), to the absolutely irresponsible media reports passing along rumors of rampant criminality by the victims who crowded into the Superdome and the Convention Center. Perhaps even worse was that city and state leaders, like New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Chief Eddie Compass, believed and amplified those rumors, treating exhausted survivors as a threat, not people in desperate need of help. And of course flat out racism compounded every problem. For instance, most of those in the Superdome and Convention Center could have walked to safety across the Crescent City Connection, the bridge over the Mississippi River. Solnit notes the "Convention Center was practically at the foot of the bridge."
But the sheriff in the suburb of Gretna, along with armed vigilantes, closed the bridge and even had deputies fire volleys of shots over the heads of groups of survivors to drive them off. One exasperated survivor compared New Orleans to 9/11 just four years before, saying just imagine if men with guns had stood on the George Washington Bridge, threatening to shoot anyone trying to escape lower Manhattan.
Shepard Smith, even then a rare voice of sanity at Fox News, excoriated the local authorities live on air:
"They won't let them walk out. They got locked in there. And anyone who walks up out of that city now is turned around. You are not allowed to go to Gretna, Louisiana, from New Orleans, Louisiana. Over there, there's hope. Over there, there's electricity. Over there, there is food and water. But you cannot go from here to there. The government will not allow you to do it. It's a fact." New Orleans was not just a catastrophe. It was a prison.
Rumors of "gangs" of crazed Black men murdering, raping, and "marauding" their way through the Convention Center, the Superdome, and the rest of the city were reported as fact, and taken seriously by authorities. Nothing of the sort happened. A number of people in both locations died because of the heat, or due to dehydration and the complete lack of medical assistance. But nothing like the hundreds that were rumored.
One police officer, Dumas Carter, recalled a captain who panicked that the hotel where he and other cops had been sheltering would be overrun by "gangs" bent on killing cops:
At this point it's like four days into it, and we're trying to explain to the captain, these people are so tired and thirsty and hungry they couldn't flip over a lawn chair if they wanted to riot. I won't say anything bad about my captain. My captain was making good decisions based on bad information."
As the excellent podcast Floodlines discussed recently, tales of survivors shooting sniper rifles at rescue helicopters or police boats were also common, but completely unsubstantiated; no choppers or rescue boats ever returned with bullet holes, though it's entirely likely that people did fire guns to try to attract rescuers' attention. Carter told Solnit how the fear of imaginary snipers thwarted relief efforts: Military helicopters would
fly over the crowd, then fly seven or eight blocks away and drop food and water from about forty or fifty feet—high enough to bust the boxes and send bottles of water all over the concrete. There was a group of people, Good Samaritans, who pilfered the Convention Center for handcarts and walked out to where the food and water was and brought it back to the people. And the people got together as a group and disseminated it amongst themselves, without any riots, any fights, anything. And then these people put together a box of food and water and brought it to us. We didn't take it. We told them, don't worry about us, give it to the kids and the old people. But these people were looking out for us at this point! And the people at the Convention Center were left high and fucking dry. They survived, they pulled together, they sang songs all night. I mean, they would come and ask us: "You're looking tired, are you feeling okay? Those were the people I swore to protect."
Solnit adds, "So much for [Thomas] Hobbes."
The Hobbsean myth, that without order, people will descend into savagery, does seem to be borne out in in some instances, at least when people with guns convince themselves others are coming to get them. White residents of Algiers Point and Gretna, who got through the storm mostly OK, were obsessed with fighting off the black hordes they were certain were coming to take their TV sets, since that's usually a top priority for people trying to survive.
Those who had electricity could tune in to CNN and be told, "On the dark streets, rampaging gangs take full advantage of the unguarded city. Anyone venturing outside is in danger of being robbed or even shot. It is a state of siege." But even without any outside goading, many on the periphery of the disaster zone were ready to become monsters themselves. Danish documentary filmmaker Rasmus Holm filmed some white vigilantes casually admitting to murdering Black survivors for his ironically titled film, Welcome To New Orleans.
[A] stocky white guy with receding white hair and a Key West T-shirt chortled, "I never thought eleven months ago I'd be walking down the streets of New Orleans with two .38s and a shotgun over my shoulder. It was great. It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it."
A tough woman with short hair and chubby arms added, "That's not a pheasant and we're not in South Dakota. What's wrong with this picture?"
The man said happily, "Seemed like it at the time."
A second white-haired guy explained, "You had to do what you had to do. If you had to shoot somebody, you had to shoot. It's that simple."
A third said, "We shot 'em."
The woman said, "They were looters. In this neighborhood we take care of our own."
And the last man to speak added, "You know what? Algiers Point is not a pussy community."
They had to die, because "looters," even if their sole crime was walking through a panicked white neighborhood on the way to a designated evacuation point, a ferry terminal.
Looting and murderous acts driven by fear of looting are running themes throughout the book. Solnit reminds us just how bizarre it is that people get shot on sight for theft (or suspicion of it) when tens of thousands are in extreme need following a disaster, and when many businesses are already a total loss anyway. She also notes that "looting" is very much a variable term, and credits CNN's Soledad O'Brien with being among the first to call attention to the contrast in how media discusses it:
Solnit suggests it might be fruitful to somehow send the word "looting" itself down the memory hole, for all the harm it's done through imprecision:
It pools together two very different activities. One might be called theft; the other requisitioning, the gathering of necessary goods in an emergency—think of Salvation Army volunteers and affluent professionals breaking into drugstores in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake to get medical supplies for the injured. Such requisitioning is an utterly appropriate response to extraordinary circumstances, a choice of survival and aid over the rules of everyday life. Almost no stores were open for business during the days after Katrina, and money was not relevant in many places; the only way to get essentials was to take them.
One survivor from the Superdome recalled that, far from turning into rape gangs, young men in the hot, dark building protected old people, made sure they got what food and water could be found, and went out on supply runs to "loot" diapers and juice for babies.
Solnit adds that some of the most egregious post-Katrina looting was committed by the supposed guardians of law and order: NOPD officers
stripped a Cadillac dealership of its stock. Some were found driving Cadillacs as far away as Texas. With laconic southern humor, the dealership later reopened with a billboard that advertised its cars were "Driven by New Orleans' Finest."
But sure, some people did steal TVs and stereos; that definitely does happen. Honestly, Solnit is refreshingly pissed off that it's such a huge concern, because for fucks's sake "who cares if electronics are moving around without benefit of purchase when children's corpses are floating in filthy water and stranded grandmothers are dying of heat and dehydration?" Unfortunately, too many people do care, and maybe that's the problem. Again and again, Solnit suggests, the real 365-day disasters are capitalism and inequality.
And yet: even though government at all levels failed them, the people of New Orleans did what they could to save each other, against odds made worse by official inaction and elite panic. And so did outsiders. The "Cajun Navy" — mostly white strangers from all over Louisiana, Texas, and nearby states — went around roadblocks to get boats into the water and rescue people while officialdom said it was too dangerous.
Following the disaster, locals and outsiders came together to rebuild, and to resist official plans to turn parts of the city over to wealthy developers. A Baptist church from Texas started a free kitchen near another one run by Rainbow Family hippies, and before long the two were working together. Locals joked about going to the "hippie restaurant."
A couple of local activists with 50 dollars between them started an ad hoc mutual aid group that grew into the nonprofit Common Ground, which raised millions and became a key part of the rebuilding effort. They loaned out tools and put volunteers to work feeding people, gutting and renovating buildings, and while they were at it, started on plans to restore cypress swamps that had been wiped out by industrial canals. Common Ground set up a first-aid station that evolved into a full community clinic, and eventually incorporated as its own separate nonprofit. Such victories were too few, but there they were, Brad Pitt and all.
In her epilogue, Solnit points out that many state and local disaster agencies have begun to revamp disaster planning to build the public into relief efforts. Following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, her home city of San Francisco created the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT — a great acronym!) program to train volunteers to respond first, since firefighters and EMTs will arrive well after local community members. San Francisco marked the centennial of the 1906 earthquake by calling on community members to prepare themselves to help each other, and to help the poor and the homeless, who aren't likely to have the luxury of prepping their own "go bags."
What this city government has learned—or admitted—is that it is inadequate to respond to or control response to a disaster and that the only viable strategy is to invite citizens to take power.
At one training she attended, a firefighter pointed out that
"eighty percent of people saved in a disaster can be saved without specialized skills." He stressed that the timeliness of the rescue mattered most for those who were trapped, which is why neighbors are often more important than experts.
In a group exercise following the training, teams of participants were asked to prioritize several scenarios, such as downed power lines, a group of senior citizens who weren't injured, or a small fire in a wrecked building.
My team decided to put out the fire first, since it seemed like a chance to prevent greater harm, and were roundly scolded. The firefighters amazed me by saying, "In a disaster, property no longer matters. Only people matter." We had come a long way from San Francisco in 1906.
And now here we are in a pandemic, plus a nationwide movement against bad law enforcement, and while some of us are behaving like idiots, most of us want to help. We're wearing masks at protests, bringing hand sanitizer, and saying NO to violence being perpetrated in our names. The anarchists are planting gardens in parks. There's reason to be hopeful, if we can remember to stick together. And if the current moment of intense interest in reform doesn't hold the spotlight for long, there's always more energy for progress, as this excellent On the Media piece explores.
So what I'm saying is that this was a pretty good read. Nothing's guaranteed, but stay hopeful, stay active, stay in the streets, and let's take care of each other.
Programming Note: As ever with Book Club posts, please limit your discussion to the book itself and current events observations related to this post. Clearly, that does include COVID-19 and the protests, but if you can relate them to the post somehow, that would be good. Please save entirely off-topic comments for the actual Open Thread, which will be along in a bit. Thanks! I will be deleting off-topic comments, but don't worry, you wont' get in trouble for that.
[A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster / Floodlines / On the Media / US Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Jeremy L. Grisham]
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.