FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Katrina, the Big One

by JOHN F. BURNETT

Storm refugees, nearly all of them black, are on the move throughout the city. And they are refugees, as in, people fleeing misfortune and seeking refuge. NPR and other news organizations caved to pressure from critics who did not like the word. We substituted “evacuees.” Some listeners thought “refugee” carried a pejorative foreign connotation, something that happens in Sudan or Somalia but never the United States. That’s precisely why I preferred the term. I hoped it would shock people into realizing that an American city had sunk to Third World conditions.

Hawke and I hop out of the truck to interview a ragged string of refugees walking up Howard on the way to the Superdome, trailed by an obese woman in stretch shorts. “I got a bad heart. I ain’t got no business travelin’ like this,” she says.

A woman with matted hair in a Tweety Bird T-shirt says, “We slept all night on the bridge. They say go across the river and the buses will pick us up. Now they’re turnin’ us all around. We need somebody who knows what’s goin’ on!”

I ask more questions, but they want answers. Where to get a meal? Where to find a bus?

“Tell the truth,” a young man in a Bob Marley T-shirt asks in exasperation. “Y’all care about us?”

“Of course we do,” Hawke replies.

“Well, help us,” he says sharply. “They got people layin’ up there on the bridge dyin’ . . . I know y’all want our story, but we need help!”

We don’t know where they should go, either. And we’re worried that if we hand out the little food and water we have in the truck, we’ll cause a scene. Still, he makes a powerful point: We need a story; he needs a rescue.

A couple of weeks later, a listener will e-mail NPR and ask, “What about the demands of suffering humanity? Do you ever feel that journalism is an inadequate response to the tragedies you report on?” Other listeners suggest we should have turned our sat phone over to the cops after they lost communication.

The role of journalist as detached chronicler or part-time rescuer will be discussed intensely after Katrina. Purists argue that journalists should never participate in a story — period. We bear witness to history; we don’t step into it. But it’s not that simple. We don’t leave our humanity at home when we cover a disaster. Anytime I, as a journalist, record a person in misery and then walk away, I feel like the photographer who queasily described his role, saying, “We came to take our trophies and left.” There’s something unbecoming about that behavior, particularly if we can offer a small kindness without neglecting our job.

Later in the week, Hawke and I hand out water and snacks to individual refugees we encounter, and the NPR crew gives four desperate Canadian tourists a ride to Baton Rouge. I heard of other journalists using their news boats to rescue people. I believe you do what you can, but you never let go of the story. And on this story, in particular, journalists will perform a service by being on the ground and in the water to show the world and our own government the terrible conditions in New Orleans.

The unrelenting sun turns the morning into a sauna. I crank up the Ford’s A/C and think sadly about the people stuck in the sweltering Superdome or sitting on their rooftops. This is the same heat wave that warmed the gulf and created the monster hurricane. Our world is heating up. There could well be more Katrinas in future summers. But at the moment, they’ve got to fix this one.

In the Rose Garden, President Bush ticks off all the federal aid bound for New Orleans: 400 trucks transporting 5.4 million meals, 13.4 million liters of water, 10,400 tarps, 3.4 million pounds of ice, 144 generators, 135,000 blankets. It probably sounds reassuring to people everywhere but here, where they know the truth. The relief effort — if there is one — has fallen into chaos. No one is in charge. Storm survivors are adrift in the gulf of New Orleans. The city needs every thing — food, water, buses, boats, doctors, soldiers, ice, and body bags. And what does Governor Blanco do? She calls for a statewide Day of Prayer.

I zigzag through fallen limbs along St. Charles Avenue, famed for its Mardi Gras parades and formerly shady oaks. When I spot more refugees wading up the street, I pull onto the streetcar tracks and kill the engine. We climb out and introduce ourselves to Latoya Solomon, a 24-year-old hotel employee who’s walking with 12 members of her family, from a tot happily splashing along the pavement to a grim old woman in an orange life vest. As soon as my first question is out, Solomon starts to rant. “The water’s off, the light’s off, everything’s flooded, everything’s soakin’ wet, we can’t eat, we can’t cook, stores ain’t open. We thirsty. What? What? I don’t see nobody tryin’ to help us. Everybody just walkin’ around lookin’ lonesome. This ain’t gonna work,” she says. I wish I could put her on live with the president.

JOHN F. BURNETT has been in the midst of the biggest news stories of our age, and 2005 marked his 20th year reporting for National Public Radio. He is the recipient of a 2004 Edward R. Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting and a 2003 National Headliner Award for Investigative Reporting. He lives in Austin, Texas.

Reprinted from: Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent by John F Burnett © 2006 John F Burnett. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098.

 

 

 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
December 02, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
The Coming War on China
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro
Paul Street
The Iron Heel at Home: Force Matters
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Timberg’s Tale: Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites
Andrew Levine
Must We Now Rethink the Hillary Question? Absolutely, Not
Joshua Frank
CounterPunch as Russian Propagandists: the Washington Post’s Shallow Smear
David Rosen
The Return of HUAC?
Rob Urie
Race and Class in Trump’s America
Patrick Cockburn
Why Everything You’ve Read About Syria and Iraq Could be Wrong
Caroline Hurley
Anatomy of a Nationalist
Michael Hudson – Steve Keen
Rebel Economists on the Historical Path to a Global Recovery
Ayesha Khan
A Muslim Woman’s Reflections on Trump’s Misogyny
Russell Mokhiber
Sanders Single Payer and Death by Democrat
Roger Harris
The Triumph of Trump and the Specter of Fascism
Steve Horn
Donald Trump’s Swamp: Meet Ten Potential Energy and Climate Cabinet Picks and the Pickers
Louis Proyect
Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers
Ralph Nader
Trump and His Betraying Makeover
Stephen Kimber
The Media’s Abysmal Coverage of Castro’s Death
Dan Bacher
WSPA: The West’s Most Powerful Corporate Lobbying Group
Nile Bowie
Will Trump backpedal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Ron Ridenour
Fidel’s Death Brings Forth Great and Sad Memories
Missy Comley Beattie
By Invitation Only
Fred Gardner
Sword of Damocles: Pot Partisans Fear Trump’s DOJ
Renee Parsons
Obama and Propornot
Dean Baker
Cash and Carrier: Trump and Pence Put on a Show
Jack Rasmus
Taming Trump: From Faux Left to Faux Right Populism
Ron Jacobs
Selling Racism—A Lesson From Pretoria
Julian Vigo
The Hijos of Buenos Aires:  When Identity is Political
Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano
By Way of Prologue: On How We Arrived at the Watchtower and What We Saw from There
Dave Lindorff
Is Trump’s Idea To Fix the ‘Rigged System’ by Appointing Crooks Who’ve Played It?
Aidan O'Brien
Fidel and Spain: A Tale of Right and Wrong
Carol Dansereau
Stop Groveling! How to Thwart Trump and Save the World
Kim Nicolini
Moonlight, The Movie
Evan Jones
Behind GE’s Takeover of Alstom Energy
James A Haught
White Evangelicals are Fading, Powerful, Baffling
Barbara Moroncini
Protests and Their Others
Joseph Natoli
The Winds at Their Backs
Cesar Chelala
Poverty is Not Only an Ignored Word
David Swanson
75 Years of Pearl Harbor Lies
Alex Jensen
The Great Deceleration
Nyla Ali Khan
When Faith is the Legacy of One’s Upbringing
Gilbert Mercier
Trump Win: Paradigm Shift or Status Quo?
Stephen Martin
From ‘Too Big to Fail’ to ‘Too Big to Lie’: the End Game of Corporatist Globalization.
Charles R. Larson
Review: Emma Jane Kirby’s “The Optician of Lampedusa”
David Yearsley
Haydn Seek With Hsu
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail