September 12, 2005

A radio program that should not be missed

I have not been writing about the devastating effects of hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and all along the Gulf coast because I felt that there was little that I could add to everything that was being said. Like most people, I have been overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster and the fact that we are seeing the evacuation of a major city that may not be inhabitable for months due to the difficulty of drying out a below-sea-level area.

But over the weekend, I listed to this week's edition of the NPR radio program This American Life and the show was so powerful that I felt compelled to alert readers of this blog that it is one show that must be listened to. Fortunately, you can listen to it online. The program is one hour long but you will be so engrossed that you will not feel the time passing. If any radio program is deserving of an award, this one is.

The program usually consists of the host Ira Glass putting together stories about and from people around some theme. Last weekend's program called After the Flood was about the hurricane events in New Orleans. It was in five segments, an introduction followed by four 'acts' as the show likes to label them. If you have limited time, listen to at least the first, second, and third 'acts'.

The introductory segment had a knowledgeable person who quoted the laws governing emergencies to expose as hollow the current attempt by the White House to shift blame away from them and onto city and state authorities, and say that that their delay in providing relief was because they could not act until the local authorities gave them the green light. This expert said that the laws are unambiguous that the federal authorities had all the powers needed to act from the very beginning, without waiting for state and local authorities to authorize or request specific actions.

The first act was an eyewitness report by a hospital worker who ended up at the infamous Convention Center. She described the reasons why she and others could not leave town and the appalling filth and stench that she encountered when she arrived at the center. She also said that the 'looters' and 'thugs' were the only ones taking care of the people there. The 'thugs' took control in designated areas, kept order, and protected the people because everyone had heard rumors of rapes and assaults, although she did not witness anything of that sort. The 'looters' would go out and get water and food and juice boxes (for the children) and pass them around. This woman said that while the officials did nothing for them except keep them trapped inside and feed them false information and threaten them, the 'thugs' and 'looters' were the ones who actually did things to help the people there and make them feel secure.

The second act was a report by two emergency medical services people (I think paramedics) from San Francisco who had been attending a convention in New Orleans when the hurricane hit. These two women described what happened at their hotel and later their experiences stuck on a highway bridge as they tried to walk away from the city. This story clarified something that had been puzzling me for sometime. During the storm I had wondered how it was that news crews seemed to be able to enter and leave the city freely while there were these pictures of people seemingly stuck for days by the side of a dry highway. Why didn't they simply walk away, if they were physically able?

The two EMS women explained why, confirming other reports that have begun to emerge. (See a New York Times report here.) It turns out that on the other side of the bridge was a small suburban community called Gretna and their sheriff and police were guarding the entrance to their town and shooting at the people on the bridge to prevent them from entering their town. So the people were stuck there on the bridge. The two EMS women (who were white) said their small group of eight had been joined by about 70 other people (mostly black) and they created a small community on the bridge which shared water and food, kept the place clean, created small 'toilets', and looked after the children and the elderly and infirm. She said that at one point a 'looter' came by in a truck and unloaded all the five gallon containers of water he had been able to get from somewhere, and took away as many children and their families as he could load into his vehicle. She said that the able bodied people in the group also ran to quickly collect some emergency rations that had accidentally fallen off a FEMA truck which was racing by, ignoring them. With this food and water, she said that the little community felt a little better. They also felt safe because night was approaching and the bridge was one of the few places where street lights were still working.

But as night fell, a Gretna policeman came and screamed menacingly at them to leave the bridge, and they had to go back towards New Orleans into the dangerous darkness. As she left, she saw a helicopter fly low over their makeshift 'village' and deliberately blow away all the little structures the group had put up to keep things orderly and sanitary.

The third act was about a young boy in a neighboring parish who spoke about what it felt like to have no food or water for days and to begin to think that the country as a whole had abandoned them. The final act was by a woman who had managed to escape before the storm to Florida, whose home had been flooded, and who was wondering what to do now, followed by a description about the trailer parks that were set up by FEMA as temporary housing after earlier hurricanes.

All the stories were very moving but as I listened I also became increasingly angry. On the one hand one had these amazing stories of people who had lost everything, who felt completely helpless and abandoned, coming together and overcoming race and class to try and help each other get through a desperate situation. On the other hand, you had the ugly sight of race and class prejudice seemingly being a factor in keeping people trapped in appalling conditions, preventing assistance from reaching them, and then blaming them for their situation afterwards.

I have given up hope that there will be any accountability of the national political leadership for the ghastly debacle that is now Iraq. Supporters of the war are fond of pointing out how bad Saddam Hussein was because of the cruelties that he inflicted on 'his own people,' as if that fact was ever contested by anybody, and as if that excuses the mess that this administration has made over there.

But apart from the damage created by the hurricane itself, what happened to the people of New Orleans and the neighboring areas was also done by us to 'our own people.' The outrageous treatment of them goes beyond mere incompetence and enters the realm of criminal negligence. There is enough culpability at all levels of government, city, state, and national. If major heads don't roll for this atrocity that, unlike Iraq, cannot be sheltered under the cloaks of patriotism and nationalistic fervor, then we can say that accountability is truly dead.


Trackback URL for this entry is: Why natural disasters don't affect all equally
Excerpt: There has been one aspect of the hurricane Katrina events and its aftermath that has been bothering me and that...
Weblog: Mano Singham's Web Journal
Tracked: September 13, 2005 07:52 AM Trapped in New Orleans by LARRY BRADSHAW ?and LORRIE BETH SLONSKY
Excerpt: In an earlier post, I gave a summary of a radio program that featured eyewitness reports by two San Francisco...
Weblog: Mano Singham's Web Journal
Tracked: September 14, 2005 07:44 AM Why were the New Orleans stories believed?
Excerpt: The degree to which the stories of mayhem in the Superdome and Convention Center were overblown is captured in this...
Weblog: Mano Singham's Web Journal
Tracked: October 6, 2005 08:05 AM


One of my friends linked to this movie (you may need to copy and paste the link to view it) this morning, and it's definitely the most powerful thing I've heard yet (surpassing even the New Orleans mayor's uncensored interview). I can't even conceive the sheer magnitude of this disaster if I try to count up individual lives.

Posted by Nicole Sharp on September 12, 2005 08:02 AM

I lived in New Orleans from 2001-2004. I am so frustrated by all of the talking heads and people I hear on the street that say everyone should have just left before the hurricane. One fifth of the city's population does not have access to an automobile. I had patients at Charity Hospital that made $800 a year (not a month) and couldn't afford bus fare ($3.00 round trip) from the ninth ward (one of the poorest areas and the site the worst flooding) to the hospital where they received free care. When you couple that with the ignorance resulting from the nation's worst public school system and a level of crime that makes many people afraid to leave their homes you begin to understand the full extent of the tragedy.

Posted by Dave on September 12, 2005 10:16 AM

New Orleans evacuees were fired on by SUBURBAN authorities?

Pardon me while I scream and rant and shake my fist at the computer screen... up until now I was saying "No, no this tragedy had nothing to do with race or class... no one is that evil..."

But I'm realizing that yes, yes it does, and in quiet polite ways that usually fall under 'protecting our own'. I remember growing up my father complaining about how hard it was to get into the Heights - he said it was 'to keep the poor people out'. And I remember him also saying that Case, where I was about to enroll for school, was 'an ivory tower', fortified on all sides against the neighborhoods surrounding it. There are no barbed-wire fences, no border patrol, but there are lines.

If East Cleveland had to evacuate, I'm not sure I'd be suprised if roadblocks were constructed on Forest Hill and Superior. They are almost there already.

Sorry... I'm just really angry and sad and sickened.

Posted by Marie Vibbert on September 12, 2005 10:24 AM

Poor people are dispensable. Note the callous comments of Barbara Bush in this NYT article
The radio program confirmed what I believed - the so called "looting" was actually meeting the basic needs of the poor victims. If those owners of chain stores (Rite Aid, Wal Mart etc.) were guided by their conscience they would have willingly donated their wares to the victims in the hour of need instead of posting guards with signs saying "looters will be shot" (see NYT photos).

Posted by Arvin (Aravindhan Natarajan) on September 12, 2005 10:50 AM

"As President Bush battled criticism over the response to Hurricane Katrina, his mother declared it a success for evacuees who "were underprivileged anyway," saying on Monday that many of the poor people she had seen while touring a Houston relocation site were faring better than before the storm hit."

That is a quote out of the article that Arvin posted a link to. Reading that article almost made me physically ill - the woman is clearly racist and classist, and she's the one who raised our current president?!

Posted by Liz V on September 12, 2005 11:31 AM

The two paramedics' story:

What is interesting to note are the two pictures that appear on this page, with their captions. The young black man was described as seen "after looting a grocery store". The two white people were decribed as seen after "finding bread and soda from a grocery store".

And there was ever a question that our media is racist?

Posted by on September 12, 2005 11:46 AM

The two paramedics' story:

What is interesting to note are the two pictures that appear on this page, with their captions. The young black man was described as seen "after looting a grocery store". The two white people were decribed as seen after "finding bread and soda from a grocery store".

And there was ever a question that our media is racist?

Posted by Liz V on September 12, 2005 11:46 AM

Mano, thanks for this. I hope they'll reair it.

For a touch of mordant humor, see Andy Borowitz's piece from last Friday (go to, click on archive, and see the top piece "Barbara Bush Relocated"). I also recommend we get her a mask/muzzle, similar to the one worn by Hannibal Lecter, for those times in which it's absolutely necessary for Miss Anne to be out in public.

And Marie, we saw a form of the East Cleveland/Cleveland Heights racism years ago when we tried to save Forest Hill Park(owned by both cities) from further development. It soon became clear that Cleveland Heights didn't want to have anything to do with working with East Cleveland and those of us in the preservation group heard through the network that the officials of Cleveland Heights are terrified of East Clevelanders "coming up the hill." It's not clear what they expect EC's to do after they "come up the hill," but you know, it's just the idea of them leaving their "reservation." I'm sickened, too.

Posted by catherine on September 12, 2005 12:02 PM

Catherine, you can hear archived shows from 1995 on if you go to this site! So, if you have access to a good net connection, there's no need to wait for rebroadcast. :)

(I saw Ira Glass perform at the Wisconsin Union Theater a couple of years ago. It was really wonderful.)

Posted by on September 12, 2005 02:11 PM

What has surprised me the most about this event is how many people are surprised by it.   Although many are attempting to neatly package this as a race issue, it goes well beyond that.  The "class system" in this society is the most prevalent form of discrimination and bigotry blatantly practiced in this country, which crosses all societal lines: race, gender, culture, status, economic, occupational, educational...   [And it's effects go far beyond our borders, one only needs to see where we've chosen to initiate war, (Iraq/Vietnam etc.)].  
MLK understood this, although his message was packaged by others as solely racial, he recognized that it was the class system structure that was at the root, (which made racial discrimination even possible).  He was just beginning to give light to this truth before he was assassinated - which was no coincidence.
Unfortunately, this debate will never occur in the public arena, for there are too many of us who are unknowingly guilty of it.

Posted by Mary on September 12, 2005 06:22 PM

To be fair, there were reports of actual looting too .. people who went through damaged houses and stole tv's and stereos and musical instruments and the like. Stuff that clearly wasn't necessary for sustaining life. People weren't entirely banding together, either; there was sort of a state of anarchy at the Superdome, with people fearing for their safety. Not that this means anything wrt the main point of the post (which I agree with) but it's not like The People were All Good and the Government was All Bad which is what the comments here sort of sound like.

Posted by on September 12, 2005 10:41 PM

Mano and others,

Greetings from an alum of Fall '97 P3 Honors!

Don't give up all hope for accountability. In a press conference today President Bush accepted personal responsibility for the failures of the Federal response to Katrina.

"Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility."

Posted by Jarrod Aman on September 13, 2005 01:39 PM

I love the question I get from many war-supporters when they find out I don't support the war and never have:
"What, you wish Saddam Hussein were still in power? Do you think he's a good guy or something?"

So very much not the point.

I've lost track of your blog for a while due to insanity of the academic and musical sorts, but I'm going to try to keep up better! I always love hearing what you have to say!


Posted by Victoria on September 14, 2005 01:44 PM