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    Tuesday, August 29, 2006

    "George Bush doesn't care about black people": A look back at Katrina

    A damaged house in the Lower Ninth Ward

    I was in Valencia, Spain when the newspapers started screaming. The headlines, published in a ominously large font, included words like "DESTRUIDO" and "TRAGEDIA." There were charts and a few photos of damaged houses too, but I did my best to brush them off. It was hurricane season after all and the tailend of August, with the news cycle at its slowest. Maybe there just wasn't much to report and the international press was hyperbolizing a bad storm. But the next day, browsing my hotel's newspaper selections, I found the story only worsening. The reports of casualties were growing. The few statistics were frightening.

    It was disorienting to be in a foreign country reading about an American disaster. I had to get by with my high school-level Spanish, translating the stories word by dutiful word. I still wasn't sure how much to believe, how singular of a hurricane this Katrina was. So I started spending more and more time in Internet cafes. I trolled news sites for any scrap of information. I followed blogs and message boards. But that only made me feel even more at a remove, even more frustrated and helpless, even further than an ocean away. I still remember one commenter writing, "New Orleans is gone. It's just gone."

    Survivors in New Orleans geting supplies and being sent to shelters in the aftermath of Katrina

    My frustration grew as the body count rose, but as the storm passed, my anger took over. I seethed when I finally saw that image of Bush simply flying over affected areas. The more I learned of FEMA's incompetence and the lack of funding to fix the levees, the more I hated our unqualified administration. But of course, inability didn't stop at party lines, as local and state Democrats were just as pointless. The entire response was so surreal it almost felt like a joke: our government was content to start wars abroad, but couldn't help protect some of its most poor and vulnerable people domestically. This was the image we were sending an already skeptical world.

    A Red Cross shelter in the Astrodome for 18,000 people

    Half a year later, I was home editing a book about Katrina evacuees and the people that offered them housing. Reading their accounts brought the incident back into sharp relief, revealing how much had gone untold. One woman stranded in the Superdome relayed how women were raped in the stadium because the National Guard couldn't protect them. And since no one had warned her about the water supply, she brushed her teeth once and became violently ill. One man described the twenty-car-long lines at gas stations with no gas, effectively trapping people in town. Another talked about how cops automatically assumed he was looting because he was black. And person after person detailed their maddening experiences trying to get information and assistance from FEMA.

    Looking back, the prevailing sense I get from the chaos of Katrina is that this should never have happened in 2005. It feels like some historical anomaly, something with a half-century's remove, something you learn about in History class and marvel at how a government was ever so unprepared. Obviously, tragedies occur and fatalities are inherent in life, but the level of ignorance and apathy shown by the people at the top for people in dire need in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana makes the tragic feel criminal.

    A garage of a flooded house in New Orleans

    * * *
    There've been many songs written about New Orleans generally and Hurricane Katrina specifically. One of my favorites among the former category is Tom Waits' "I Wish I Was In New Orleans (In The Ninth Ward)." As with so much of his work, Waits makes an extraordinary place seem even more extraordinary, romanticizing and celebrating it in lush detail. Very different is The Legendary KO's post-Katrina indictment, "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People." Starting with Kanye West's famous seven words and his Ray Charles sample, the Houston-based group produces an incredible protest track for the ages, nailing more salient points than a thousand talking heads. It still brings back my anger and frustration when I hear it. And one year later, there's still a lot to be angry about and a lot of work to be done.

    * MP3: "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People" - The Legendary KO
    * MP3: "I Wish I Was In New Orleans (In The Ninth Ward)" - Tom Waits from Small Change [Buy it]

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