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Katrina, Poverty and the American Dream

The Water and the Road


August 29, 2005: Hurricane Katrina makes landfall. 90,000 square miles across several southern states are affected; 270,000 people are displaced; more than 1800 people are killed; and 81.2 billion dollars in damages are estimated. Like the Good Samaritan in the ancient parable, Americans responded to this deadly event with kindness and goodwill: federal assistance of more than $100 billion and donations close to $4.2 billion have been directed and raised towards rebuilding areas and communities affected by hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. Numerous relief and charity organizations, volunteer groups, churches, and other local, state, and federal agencies are engaged in recovery and reconstruction in the Gulf Coast.

But the Good Samaritan–as symbol, narrative, ideal–is an important first step. Focusing exclusively on charity misses out on something more important and ultimately more challenging than anything that August 29, 2005 presents to us-understanding and changing the conditions that prevailed on the road to Jericho on which the thieves, the poor, and the Good Samaritan traveled and encountered each other, a point Martin Luther King Jr. never failed to emphasize. Katrina was a natural disaster in the sense that it was part of weather systems and environmental conditions, but as Jed Horne observes in Breach of Faith, it was also an unnatural disaster because the local, state, and federal governments’ response to the hurricane compounded human suffering. When we shift our focus from the natural disaster to the unnatural disaster, from the Samaritan, the individual, to the road to Jericho, the larger socio-economic and political situations in which people meet and interact, a different question emerges. This shift requires that we move beyond empathy and volunteerism to grapple with the question that Michael Eric Dyson raises with insightful urgency: how can we create and sustain "structures of justice that perpetuate the goodwill intended in charity"? While goodwill and charity are absolutely essential in addressing social problems, how they inevitably get embedded within broader institutional structures, forms of representation, patterns of bureaucratization, and models of corporatization have everything to do with whether or not the road to Jericho will ever be transformed.

The reason why Katrina disturbs us so deeply has to do with the fateful drama played out after she made landfall: thousands upon thousands of the elderly, the disabled, the confused, the weak, the helpless, the poor, the uneducated, the forgotten, the under-aged, the neglected gathered in major public spaces-the Super Dome, the Highway overpasses, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center-and found themselves turning into mute witnesses to their structural disinheritance from the American Dream. This was not the agony of private defeat; it was the anguish of a social crumbling. There it was in full public display-blatant poverty in a great Amerd what Michael Eric Dyson calls the "color of disaster"-two realities that stood in stark contrast to two powerful ideas encoded in the Declaration of Independence: the right to equality and the inherent dignity of each human life.

The Geography of Poverty and the American Dream

Human suffering is not the experience of a biological organism, a blob that flutters and flails while disembodied Reason extends a benevolent hand. Suffering has a social character: all experiences of pain and suffering are shaped by the conditions, norms, and expectations of daily life. We understand our humanity and another’s humanity in and through the cultural forms and social categories already in existence, circulation, or deeply sedimented in historical consciousness. Each time we think about human suffering and distress, we need to come to grips with the fact that suffering, anywhere and every time, has a face, a color, a tone, a history, a cultural and social inflection.

Consider this: Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, three states among others adversely affected by Katrina, rank first, second, and eighth for highest rates of national poverty. According to Arloc Sherman and Isaac Shapiro of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, almost 28 percent of New Orleans residents were caught up in poverty prior to the storm, and close to half of these poor lacked cars and other means of transportation. Alan Berube and Bruce Katz of the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution point out that if we look at the spatial organization of poverty-where it was most concentrated, who was living where, the factors that motivated or limited people’s decision to reside there, access to health care and education based on one’s place of habitation-it would be hard to downplay the social and cultural impact of poverty’s geography. Since inadequate attention was placed on building mixed income neighborhoods and encouraging economic and housing development to benefit groups with varied levels of income as New Orleans urbanized and expanded over the last two decades, the inevitable result was the increased concentration of poverty in already poor areas. At an average, it was more likely that Blacks in New Orleans lived in neighborhoods where 82 percent of the community was also Black. Without a doubt, thousands of Whites were also devastated by Katrina and it would be myopic to view post-storm impact primarily in terms of Black suffering.

Representations Have Consequences

While it’s true that hundreds and thousands of Whites were affected by Katrina, the overwhelmingly colored and classed representation of Katrina’s legacy cannot be understated: we were overwhelmed by the flood of images, videos, reports, analyses of twenty to thirty thousand people, most of them Black and poor, what Michael Harrington called "the other America"-different, invisible, neglected–stranded and helpless at the Superdome and the Convention Center. In this time of great calamity, the institutions of modernity and democracy tottered only to reveal what was suspected but suppressed all along: their structural inability to listen to the poor; their incapability to respond to the needs of those caught up in the viciousness of everyday life; and their negligence in failing to protect those they were charged by the social compact to protect.

Soon enough, as these images and symbols circulated and became part of the twenty-four hour news cycles, they morphed into urban lore, the kind of mythology that human beings are prone to believe in and appeal to in order to explain phenomena which refuses to submit itself to established protocols of verification, identification, and analysis. New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass and Mayor Ray Nagin cautioned people about rampant lawlessness and armed thuggery, which were later found to be highly exaggerated and untrue, and FEMA chief Michael Brown confessed ignorance to Ted Koppel on Nightline about what all Americans who followed the news were acutely aware of-ble conditions for the thousands stranded at the Dome and Center. It was not long before little bits of information and isolated acts of violence and looting awakened already existing prejudices and dormant fears. Then the questions came, most of them generating a deafening noise on the other side of silence:

What else can we expect from such people? Why cannot the poor get the point that when there is a hurricane, they should hop into their cars and leave the city? Why do we find ourselves weighed down by the folly of those who refuse to change, refuse to work hard, refuse to care for themselves and yet demand to be fed, clothed, and protected by the State?

But truth is stranger than fiction. In their well-documented Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security, Christopher Cooper and Robert Block present a startling picture: all levels of government were bracing for an explosive situation in which US soldiers would end up shooting at American citizens as one thousand soldiers from the National Guard and two hundred and fifty police officers drove into the embattled zone of the Convention Center. Colonel Thomas Beron, of the Louisiana National Guard, prepared for the worst as did FEMA doctors who also brought an 18-wheeler, refrigerated, to store dozens of dead bodies. What they actually found, report Cooper and Block, was "a dispirited crowd that was hungry, thirsty, and fully cooperative." Indeed, "the Convention Center fell without a single shot being fired." Sgt. 1st Class Jason Lachney, who played an active role in this mission, Dr. Louis Cataldie, administrator at the Health and Human Services Department, and Eddie Jordan, attorney for the New Orleans parish, all confirm the glaring discrepancy between official estimates of hundreds of murders and dozens of raped women and children and the less than ten dead bodies they found. Fifteen thousand people battling hunger and fear; fifteen thousand people living in quiet desperation; fifteen thousand people smelling the scent of death, and for all the national anxiety about the ungrateful, lawless poor, these people held on to the American Dream, hoping that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people will not let them perish.

Seldom comes a moment in our lives when the promise of American democracy is so powerfully enacted by those that the nation has systematically marginalized over many generations. "What has not been noticed," points out Michael Ignatieff, "is that the people with the most articulate understanding of what the contract of citizenship entails were the poor, abandoned, hungry people huddled in the stinking darkness of the New Orleans convention center." Perhaps it is we the living, the secure, and the well-fed who have exiled ourselves from the truly radical nature of the idea of America: that happiness can be pursued most meaningfully only when people eschew atomized individualism and self-fulfillment and contribute to the common good; that democratic sovereignty is fully realized only when governments depoliticize their bureaucracies and spare no effort to care for and protect their weakest, most vulnerable citizens without whose hope in democracy, there can be no consent for the government to exist.

The Pursuit of Happiness on the Road to Jericho

In the aftermath of the storm, photographer Ted Jackson of The Times-Picayune found himself facing an ethical conundrum: should he take pictures of people in conditions of utter privation or lend a helping hand? Although he was cautioned by National Guardsmen, Jackson approached the Dome and what he encountered was surprising: people rushing towards him not to rob him or kill him but to take him into their confidence and tell him about lack of food, reports of rape and murder, and pervasive helplessness. Reality at the Dome did not match reports of social anarchy but even more surprising to Jackson, reports Jed Horne, was the "unexpected way in which a group of young men had taken it upon themselvele on the sidewalks." The commitment to restoring a semblance of order came from the very people whom society regarded as socially dysfunctional. In the nearly three weeks he spent in the Gulf Coast on a mission for Time to cover Katrina, photographer Chris Usher met with Roy Henderson, whom people, living in a tent in Waveland, Mississippi, pointed to as a hero who rescued ten people by using a little boat. Asked by Usher to recount his efforts, Henderson, trying to give voice to his experience, would soon cry like a little child as did those surrounding him. About that moment, Usher notes, "I stepped back, put down my camera and stopped shooting." On a Time assignment to report on Katrina, photographer Thomas Dworzak came across a man pushing a person in a wheelchair. On seeing the photographer shooting his picture, the man chided Dworzak to stop, to which Dworzak replied that he was only trying to capture a moment in which one person was helping another. The man asked, "How would you feel if you were pushing your dead mother down a highway in a wheelchair and somebody took a picture?" At that point, Dworzak said that he "apologized and took no shots."

Deep inside the disaster zones, Ted Jackson, Chris Usher, and Thomas Dworzak battled within their hearts and minds about a core aspect of our existence–the nature of human dignity. Years of experience and education instill within photojournalists a sense of professionalism and a desire for truthful representation. On a devastated landscape, all three journalists grappled with a cardinal principle articulated so memorably in the Declaration of Independence: every human life is worthy of respect because it is equal. This does not need empirical demonstration or philosophical validation. It simply is: a self-evident truth. But there is nothing in this proposition that enables a society to turn it, naturally and unproblematically, into reality. What makes the Declaration of Independence a powerful ideal is when we, the people, weave its precepts and self-evident truths into the fabric of our lives and thus enact, on a daily, continual basis, the drama of fashioning a society based on contract and consent and in so doing create a world in which no amount of wealth or privilege, no accumulation of knowledge and experience, no exercise of law and power can stifle the cry of the human heart to affirm its inherent dignity-before Law, Nation, Humanity, and God. In choosing to put down their cameras and in refusing an individualist, winning-is- everything devotion to professional excellence, these photographers could affirm their own humanity by recognizing in a stranger’s suffering the ties that bind one individual to another, one people to another, one race to another: a desire for equality, a cry for dignity, and a hearkening for justice. Katrina changed our lives. But the nature of that change is for us fathom . . . as we travel together in the pursuit of happiness.

JOHN MUTHYALA is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Southern Maine. He can be reached at: