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Katrina: This Is What America Really Looks Like

September 3, 2005

If you want to understand exactly how cruel and disastrous Hurricane Katrina was to hundreds of thousands of people, you need to understand just one simple fact: Katrina hit on the 29th of the month.

The 29th! If only Katrina had held off a few more days and hit on September 2nd, what a different world we might be seeing.

Most upper and middle-class Americans probably don't get the significance of that date. If you're not someone who depends on welfare, on food stamps, on a disability check, or you're not someone who simply lives paycheck to paycheck, the complete horror of a disaster hitting two days before the end of the month may be lost on you.

Katrina hit two days before "mother's day," the day when welfare payments and food stamps are delivered to most poor people in this country. (Actually these days it is more likely be added to plastic cards via electronic debit accounts.) It was just two days before the paycheck that arrives at the end of the month.

The result: hundreds of thousands of poor people, working people, old people, and disabled people were unable to get out of the way of the oncoming storm. At the end of the pay period, at the end of the month, too many people simply didn't have enough cash left to put gas in the car or shell out for a bus ticket out of town for the entire family (including grandma and the kids).

And even if you wanted to go, you found out that Greyhound cancelled all of their trips out of New Orleans on Saturday, before the evacuation became "mandatory." When Greyhound stops running, there simply aren't many other options left if you're poor.

But even if there's a car that works and enough money for gas (at nearly $3 a gallon) or a bus ticket, who at the end of the month had the cash to think about three nights at the Motel 6 in Baton Rouge or Shreveport? How could you think about leaving if you couldn't afford a place to stay or food for the family, when you were already trying to stretch the few groceries you had left to feed everyone for the last few days of the month? If you were going to be homeless and penniless somewhere, why on earth would you do that far away instead of back home on familiar territory among people you know?

No, it didn't matter that the television said that it was a category five and heading straight for the lowlands. It didn't matter that the evacuation was "mandatory." They might as well have said that it was "mandatory" to jet off to the French Riviera for a two-week vacation.

So people did what poor people do everywhere: they stayed together in the communities they live in, hanging onto their families and friends and hoping that they would survive whatever life threw at them. Surviving a hurricane is just one more in a long series of survival challenges: surviving poverty, surviving hunger, surviving violence, surviving disease, surviving community decay and the surviving the daily assaults on human dignity.

And, just like poor people everywhere in the world, poor people on the Gulf Coast suffered the most when disaster struck.

If you want get why so many poor Americans and black Americans fundamentally believe that the deck is permanently stacked against them, you only need to hear one story. The New York Times reported that when it finally came time to load buses with people who had been dealing with the wretched conditions of the Superbowl, 700 well-heeled guests of the Hyatt Hotel arrived and immediately went to the front of the line for buses out of town. It seems that even in the midst of the Apocalypse, rank still has its privileges.

Only in America could the President, when directly asked about people who were taking food, water and diapers from abandoned stores, declare that there should be "zero tolerance" for such behaviors. Sure, the same George W. Bush who proclaims a "culture of life" thinks that people should starve to death before Wal-Mart's property rights are violated. Exactly what Bible is this guy reading?

I don't know if blatant racism underlies the sheer incompetence we saw in the failure of federal officials to get food, drinking water, medical care and transport to the places that needed it most, the places poor people went (because the government told them to go there). But I do know, without question, that race and class are why such inequities exist in the first place, why most well-off folks were safely ensconced in hotels inland, while poor folks were left to fend for themselves in a city that federal officials knew was going to flood.

Katrina reminds us of something most people in America would prefer to forget, that in the richest country on earth, you only have to scratch slightly below the surface to find millions of Americans who are barely getting by, who live one paycheck away from complete destruction. This is an America that often doesn't even have the resources to flee from the path of a life-threatening storm, an America facing life and death drama on a daily basis.

And, just to make the country even more uneasy, Katrina pulled the scab off that most uncomfortable of facts: that in the USA, poverty and race continue to be closely linked, and that our society has written off a huge black "underclass" as completely disposable.

For the short term, we need to put the politics and recrimination aside and get to the desperate work at hand -- dealing with the millions displaced by the storm, rebuilding communities and economies, and healing the wounds that Katrina has ripped open. But when that is done, we can't allow things to simply go back to the way they were before.

Maybe Katrina will wake America up to the vast inequities that characterize our society. Maybe Americans will be embarrassed into action by the realization that poor people don't have health care, transportation, food, or safety all of the time, not just when the flood waters come. Maybe the in-your-face racial inequities will finally be impossible to ignore. Maybe we'll understand that thousands of people die unnecessarily every day because of these circumstances. Maybe we'll stop ignoring the floodwaters of addiction, AIDS, homelessness, violence, poverty, poor education, incarceration, and discrimination that have long been inundating these communities.

And maybe this time it we'll be willing to do what it takes to save people's lives without requiring them to climb up on their roofs and wave towels to get our attention in the first place.

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This article was provided by National Association of People With AIDS.
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