Monday, September 05, 2005

The American Red Cross


“Some horror is beyond words.” I wrote that sentence in this space last December 31 as the horror of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean was becoming known. I feel that same way today. To be on vacation – as least as we do it in our family – is to be willfully dislocated from the news for awhile. Our general principle has been no TV, no newspapers, no daily sweeping through the news sites on the internet. I barely watched any Olympics last summer, and then only because my brother in Sequim was glued to his television for the duration.

But last Sunday, as we got our morning meal in the “breakfast room” of a Comfort Suite in Martinsburg, WV, the room’s television was already speaking of Katrina’s projected impact in apocalyptic terms. So, when we found ourselves late Monday at last in our rental in Bethany Beach, Delaware, we tuned in for a week of horror. Even driving around, we found the local NPR station & listened as All Things Considered’s Robert Siegel refused on Thursday to accept Michael Chertoff’s denial that there were any people waiting for aid at the New Orleans Convention Center, or that there were dead bodies lying unattended on the streets of New Orleans. Five minutes after Chertoff denied the problem multiple times, his office called NPR and acknowledged that Chertoff had “been updated” on the situation at the Convention Center and that Homeland Security and its agencies were “working tirelessly” to help the people there. Food, water & transportation out of there finally arrived on Friday.

The Convention Center is a site that has special meaning for me – a significant portion of “Quindecagon,” part of The Alphabet, was written in a hotel directly attached to the center. And I’ve stayed there more than once when traveling to New Orleans. The horrific coverage on CNN of the death & despair there was worse because I recognized every setting, even the little brick shops across the street that had been emptied out so that the living might survive.

It is not yet time to put all of this in perspective, or to assign blame for the utter collapse of the governmental infrastructure that made this catastrophe happen. We should focus right now on supporting those who have lost everything, and saving whoever remains to be saved. If you haven’t made a donation yet to the Red Cross, Oxfam or another qualified relief organization, do so now.

Later, when rescue helicopters aren’t still dropping relief workers to chop through roofs in search of survivors in the middle of a flood zone, and when we know whether or not this really is the deadliest natural disaster in American history – my mind keeps turning to the Galveston Flood of 1900, when over 8,000 people died thanks to what we would now call a category five hurricane there will be plenty of time to assess and assign blame. Right now we are still in the middle of such an event that 200 of the 1,500 members of the New Orleans police force have either quit or gone missing, while two others have already committed suicide (a common problem among rescuers dealing with overwhelming post-traumatic stress).

I will say one thing, though, at this early stage. The fault for this disaster doesn’t belong entirely to George W. Bush, even tho he and his thugocracy of a cabinet seem to have blundered for days before they understood that they had a problem. Nor is it entirely those of state and local officials. The levees in New Orleans were built to withstand a level 3 hurricane. Who among us doesn’t believe that every location on the Gulf of Mexico and Southeastern U.S. isn’t going someday to have to deal with a direct hit from a level 5?

Who in San Francisco doesn’t believe that the city will someday be hit with an earthquake every bit as large as the 9.0 that struck southeast Asia last December, setting off the tsunami? Yet there are thousands of San Franciscans living today in brick buildings. In a major earthquake, the mortar between bricks crumbles and the building simply falls on your head, World Trade Center style. That’s another disaster just waiting to happen. Nobody does anything about it because nobody wants to displace the 30,000 or so people who are – let’s face it – the least economically viable people in San Francisco, the least able to cope with that sort of dislocation. Every metropolitan area in the country has some pending disaster on a like level just waiting to happen. On a clear day, you can see the steam plumes from the Limerick nuclear power plant’s cooling towers in our skies here. In case of a meltdown, all the refugees from Pottstown & Phoenixville are supposed to crowd into our high school auditorium. Good fucking luck.

In the 1970s, a very evil man by the name of Howard Jarvis started the tax revolt that has driven the political right’s economic platform from Ronald Reagan – the president who claimed that government was the problem, not the solution – to George W. In between, more than a few others, such as Bill Clinton, have found it convenient to pander to the same general forces. All governmental institutions in the U.S., regardless of level or purpose, are underfunded. We have troops in Iraq buying armor with their own meager funds. We have a space program today that couldn’t safely land a man on the moon if it tried. We have a president who cut flood relief funds for New Orleans by 44 percent. In the 27 years since California put into place Proposition 13, it has seen its education programs – the very state institution on which California’s wealth has been built – nearly starved to extinction.

The disaster in New Orleans was not unforeseeable. But nobody has ever put the resources in place that would be capable of responding to something on this scale, even if it were done correctly. That it was done badly only exacerbates the catastrophe that was lurking all along.

It’s not just the politicians here who are to blame. It’s the fearful, greedy, inner tyrant in every one of us. Every politician – and every voter – who ever voted for a tax cut has blood on their hands this week. Those who have built careers on this may have a little more, as do those who have funded them, but it’s a problem for which we all have to take responsibility. The stench of it is the smell of death rising up from southern Louisiana & Mississippi, rubbing our own noses in our collective handiwork.