Although it was a disaster of unprecedented dimension, Hurricane Katrina still fit the basic paradigm. Lives were lost and saved. Behaviors were heroic and predatory. Responsibilities were shouldered and ducked. Damage was assessed and reconfigured. And fingers were pointed and blame was assigned – feds, state and locals.
It comes with the territory, including catastrophic.
But here’s one that shouldn’t: Making a case that race was a factor amid the chaotic effort to evacuate a city of 500,000. From civil rights leaders and pundits to Kanye West and Howard Dean, the rhetorical question has been raised. Given that the majority of the population of New Orleans is black – most of whom are poor — did racism play a role in how fast help was sent in?
First, there’s a better question. Given that New Orleans is the only major American city below sea level, given its hurricane-vulnerable location, given the endemic poverty and lack of evacuation wherewithal among many of its residents and given the advance warning that always precedes a hurricane, why wasn’t the city better prepared? First responders are always the locals. Why were hundreds of school buses, for example, unused and under water? Why was the city sans plans to evacuate its jails? That much, at least, wasn’t a flawed FEMA’s fault.
The barrier islands have been disappearing for a century, and the levees have been deteriorating for decades. Myriad matrixes and scenarios have long predicted a doomsday eventuality. New Orleans may be the “Crescent City” and the “Big Easy,” but it’s also, tragically, the “Big Dereliction of Duty.”
Nobody knows New Orleans’ residents like their own. Do we hold the black mayor, Ray Nagin, accountable because it’s his watch? Or “his” people? And how culpable are all his buck-passing predecessors?
But here’s one definitive answer. Excluding hardcore holdouts, those who didn’t evacuate were too poor, too transportation challenged, too fearful of the unknown and too isolated — not too black. It’s irresponsible, wrong and counter-productive to suggest otherwise.