five years later (originally published Sept. 4, 2010)

I was traveling on August 29th, flying from Denver to New York, so I wasn’t able to write anything down, but New Orleans was on my mind.  I tried to update on Sept. 2 (the day, in 2005, that substantial amounts of relief supplies and personnel finally found their way into New Orleans; also the day that Bush visited and praised Mike Brown for doing a “heckuva job”) but my computer crashed.  So here’s my thoughts, almost a week later.

August 29, 2010

Five years ago.  I was 23.  Readers out there who are 14, 15, 16 now might find Katrina to be a far off distant thing you don’t remember terribly well.  I remember how much it surprised me the first time I met somebody younger than me who didn’t have their conception of personal safety and security shattered by Columbine, which happened when I was a junior in the Littleton Public School District.  Or maybe you do remember Katrina, maybe you live in New Orleans or have family there; or maybe the events of that week had an enormous effect on you for the simple reason that sometimes national events touch us and change us, even though they happen through the distance of a television screen, through a blogger’s keyboard.

I know that for me (and I have family in New Orleans, so it rocked us all emotionally, but I don’t want to write about that), Katrina is my barometer, my definition, of “catastrophic systemic failure.”  It’s why I keep my most valuable possessions on my highest shelves, even though I don’t live in an area known for its flood dangers.  Katrina is the reason I do not, and never will again, trust the government to take care of me or, especially, anybody less privileged than me.  Katrina is the living example for why bureacracy is going to be the death of us all, and how electing shills and media whores and politicians and familiar names to positions of power, instead of going out and finding the best person to get the job done, does an enormous disservice to our system and our country.  Ray Nagin, George W. Bush, Mike Brown (and to a lesser extent Kathleen Blanco and the NOPD Superintendant and other people in power) are worthy of nothing but disgust as far as I’m concerned.  They thought they could sleep through a national disaster and that fate would pass the buck to someone other than them.  They were wrong, and thousands of people all along the Gulf Coast paid their debt for them.

(As an aside: fuck the Red Cross, also.  Do not give them money.)

But Katrina is also the source of my hope.  The system failed, but people pulled through.  Able-bodied folks checked on elderly and disabled neighbors and helped them evacuate when they could.  Hundreds of volunteers, from National Guard to NOPD to Coast Guard to regular guy who happened to have access to a boat, rescued as many people as they could find.  Hospital workers stayed on duty for days and days with very few supplies.  Wal-Mart sent trucks full of water when FEMA was still saying there was no way into the city; Wal-Mart provided critical supplies to rescue workers that FEMA did not equip them with (yes, I am also really, really surprised to hear myself praising Wal-Mart).  Cities beyond the disaster zone welcomed evacuees with open arms, and when the evacuation turned into exile, still made it work (Houston: I love you.).  Within days, Common Ground Collective was getting work done, opening emergency supply centers and food kitchens in the Lower Ninth Ward and ended up gutting several thousand homes–all for free, all run by volunteers.  I’ve seen men sobbing because they’d just caught their first glimpse of their lost home, then straighten up and say, “I’m still blessed.  I’ll be okay.”  When people get together, when people work together, when people do what needs to be done and don’t wait for the government or the people “in power” to do it for them–the results are breathtaking.

If you want to read up on Katrina and the aftermath, if you’re one of those who says or thinks “Why were they living under sea level anyway,” or “Why didn’t everybody evacuate? It was a motherfucking HURRICANE” or “New Orleans was a den of sin and the Lord was passing His judgment upon it,” or any of the other excuses people make when they don’t want to sound like they blame New Orleanians for what happened to their city, you can’t do better than reading The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley.  Forget Howard Zinn’s A People’s History–if you want to find out about power and privilege and how the US Government takes care of its own and about the dark side (and the bright) of our national character, The Great Deluge is the book for you.  It’ll infuriate you–but it’ll also connect you to your humanity.

Because here’s the thing.  You, sitting there reading this, YES YOU RIGHT THERE, one day will be–or already are–in power.  And I don’t mean “power” in the fake, cheap way like Ray Nagin has power or like the US Senate has power.  I mean power over your own destiny, I mean when you can support yourself and support others–and accept support, too–when you are in that place and you are an “adult” and you’ve inherited this country from its elders–it is dependent on you, yes YOU RIGHT THERE, to make sure that this never, ever, EVER happens again.  The government can (and does) leave its people for dead, which is all the more reason why we have to look after each other, we have to make allies in the communities that those in “power” have deemed not worth bothering about.  Katrina was when people took their own power into their hands, and someday, in a small way or a big way, you will be asked to do the same.  What will you do?  Will you say it’s not your problem?  Will you hope the storm misses you?  Or will you get out your boat and get looking for people who need you?  We need communities, and we need strong communities who stand on their own and know it, because it’s our communities that’ll get us through when everything else breaks down.  We must all save each other.

end soapbox.


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