A Sept. 5 interview with Charmaine Neville, a member of the third generation of New Orleans’ legendary Neville musical family, contains a first-hand account of how she helped many of her neighbors escape the stricken city—first with a flat boat, then with a commandeered bus, and with no help from the authorities. “Alligators were eating people. They had all kinds of stuff in the water. They had babies floating in the water. We had to walk over hundreds of bodies of dead people… [W]e couldn’t understand why the National Guard and them couldn’t help us, because we kept seeing them but they never would stop and help us.” She sheds some light on the reports of residents firing on rescue helicopters:
And I want people to realize that we did not stay in the city so we could steal and loot and commit crimes. A lot of those young men lost their minds because the helicopters would fly over us and they wouldn’t stop. We would make SOS on the flashlights, we’d do everything, and it really did come to a point, where these young men were so frustrated that they did start shooting. They weren’t trying to hit the helicopters, they figured maybe they weren’t seeing. Maybe if they hear this gunfire they will stop then. But that didn’t help us. Nothing like that helped us. (Online at Peace, Earth & Justice News)
Buffalo-based columnist Michael I. Niman notes Sept. 8 how the feds effectively shut down citizen self-help rescue efforts such as Neville’s:
The “too dangerous to rescue” myth was also employed by FEMA as rationale for ordering rescue teams to stand down early in the crisis. Louisianans are a tough lot, and many private boat owners from areas surrounding New Orleans immediately entered the city as flooding began, creating an ad hoc rescue flotilla. Many survivors tell of strangers in small fishing boats plucking them out of second story windows or off of roofs, depositing them high and dry on highway overpasses. The Federal government put a stop to such heroism, while failing to replace the independent effort with one of their own. (Online at MediaStudy.com)
There appears to have been an overt policy of racial and class discrimination in the rescue effort. The Milwuakee Journal-Sentinel Sept. 2 reports the ordeal of Kelli Nelson, an African-American Wisconsin native working as a nurse at Charity Hospital, New Orleans’ largest public hospital and trauma center. She and other personnel and patients were finally airlifted out to San Antonio on the 2nd, after she stood on the roof with a big sign reading “Save the babies, please get us out of here.” The city’s big private hospitals like Tulane were evacuated days earlier. Trapped in the city, Kelli did manage to get out some chilling text messages to her friends and family.
“She says the situation has gotten worse,” the friends relayed that Kelli had messaged them. “The evacuation was aborted… [T]hey had taken babies and mothers down to a boat to go to Tulane’s helicopter pad and they were refused access to the pad… what a horror story.
“Does that mean indigent people have no rights…?
In an obvious parallel to Iraq, the federal government is effectively barring images of the dead from getting out to the public. Reports Reuters, Sept. 6:
The US government agency leading the rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina said on Tuesday it does not want the news media to take photographs of the dead as they are recovered from the flooded New Orleans area.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, heavily criticized for its slow response to the devastation caused by the hurricane, rejected requests from journalists to accompany rescue boats as they went out to search for storm victims.
An agency spokeswoman said space was needed on the rescue boats and that “the recovery of the victims is being treated with dignity and the utmost respect.”
“We have requested that no photographs of the deceased be made by the media,” the spokeswoman said in an e-mailed response to a Reuters inquiry.
The Bush administration also has prevented the news media from photographing flag-draped caskets of US soldiers killed in Iraq, which has sparked criticism that the government is trying to block images that put the war in a bad light. (Online at TruthOut)
Those now at the mercy of FEMA and the National Guard at the Houston Astrodome face an uncertain future. It seems the Pentagon is quick to offer them one way out of their desperate straits. This alert comes from Houston’s Progressive Action Alliance:
Doling out food to the hungry crowds overflowing Houston’s Astrodome, the National Guard has engaged in ad hoc recruiting in recent days. Tomorrow, September 7, 2005, the U.S. military is conducting a Job Fair in the Astrodome in a blatant effort to exploit the despair of masses of Americans evacuated from the Gulf Coast. Once signed up, even if purportedly to reconstruct their region, they could easily find themselves deployed to Iraq… (Online at Operation Flashlight)
George Friedman of Stratfor writes in a Sept. 1 piece, “New Orleans: A Geopolitical Prize,” that pressing geo-strategic concerns mandate a speedy recovery of a functioning city—the same concerns that made New Orleans a principal goad in the War of 1812:
The ports of South Louisiana and New Orleans, which run north and south of the city, are as important today as at any point during the history of the republic. On its own merit, the Port of South Louisiana is the largest port in the United States by tonnage and the fifth-largest in the world. It exports more than 52 million tons a year, of which more than half are agricultural products – corn, soybeans and so on. A larger proportion of US agriculture flows out of the port. Almost as much cargo, nearly 57 million tons, comes in through the port – including not only crude oil, but chemicals and fertilizers, coal, concrete and so on…
New Orleans is not optional for the United States’ commercial infrastructure. It is a terrible place for a city to be located, but exactly the place where a city must exist. With that as a given, a city will return there because the alternatives are too devastating. The harvest is coming, and that means that the port will have to be opened soon. As in Iraq, premiums will be paid to people prepared to endure the hardships of working in New Orleans. But in the end, the city will return because it has to.
Geopolitics is the stuff of permanent geographical realities and the way they interact with political life. Geopolitics created New Orleans. Geopolitics caused American presidents to obsess over its safety. And geopolitics will force the city’s resurrection, even if it is in the worst imaginable place. (Online at TruthOut)
But even if a functioning city returns, many of its former inhabitants may not. Concludes Michael Niman:
The vast majority of the victims who were put in death’s path, not by a storm alone, but by a host of government policies, were black. Their problems didn’t begin with Hurricane Katrina. Prior to the storm, New Orleans’ black population had to struggle against hundreds of years of political and economic marginalization. Most recently, black New Orleans residents struggled to stay in their homes as their low-rent communities were threatened by gentrification.
Today the region’s largest black city — also the base of power for the Louisiana’s Democratic party — is in ruins. Most New Orleans residents didn’t own their own homes; about 40 percent of those who did, lacked adequate insurance. People who struggled to stay in their affordable New Orleans homes are now gone — shipped off to out of state “refugee centers.” New Orleans will be rebuilt — But who will have a say in how that rebuilding will take place? It’s doubtful that the traditionally disenfranchised population will have much power in shaping the new New Orleans.
Federal policies have allowed New Orleans’ black community to drown. A new city will take shape in place of the culturally unique city the world learned to love. Middle-class homeowners will get insurance money to rebuild. Landlords will be compensated for their losses. The French Quarter will once again host tourists — probably as the jeweled center of a ticky-tacky sanitized Disneyesque sort of Las Vegas by the Bayou. But will the black community that struggled since slavery days to survive in Southern Louisiana ever be able to return to and reclaim the city and heritage this flood took from them? Will their historic culture of resistance to white supremacy continue to flourish? And if history proves the answer is no, what else can we call this other than “ethnic cleansing?”
See our last post on Katrina’s aftermath.