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Katrina exposed an ugly fact: there's a Third World inside America


The big wind called Katrina has left us a nation divided. Every American now belongs to one of three camps: the luckless, the clueless or the incredulous.

The luckless, obviously, are all the poor Southerners who live along the Gulf Coast. They were bound to face calamity sooner or later--I remember reading a long article some years ago about what would happen to New Orleans if a hurricane hit directly; odds were that hurricane would strike sooner or later. The story included diagrams of some of the elaborate plans for protecting the city that had never been implemented and probably never would be because of the expense and political will required.

Everybody knew, but so what? Everybody in Southern California knows, too, and they keep on living there. We're all going to die, and millions of Californians are simply betting that the big one doesn't hit before they do.

All the people who bet wrong in New Orleans and along the coast are unlucky; the really unlucky are--or were--the poor, the elderly and the sick who couldn't get out of the storm's way. The degree of their poverty and helplessness was a shock, of course. If we didn't know that there are descendents of slaves in America who have made essentially no social or economic progress since their ancestors were freed, we do now. There, in the old capital of the American slave trade, tens of thousands of people were living in much the same way their forebears did: nearly uneducated, largely unskilled and with very little sense of the world outside. They inhabited a Third World inside America, and they were sitting ducks. It was their bodies that floated in the filthy waters and lay in the streets for two weeks before anyone had the time to pick them up.

Define "unlucky": You're born in the richest country in the history of the planet, and when you die, your body is left to rot in the sun.

Then there were the clueless, the politicians and bureaucrats who couldn't seem to figure out that there was an emergency or how they should respond to it. Worse, it took them a week to grasp why they should at least appear to give a shit.

They don't read the papers, and they don't listen to the news--that much is clear, because the media for once were doing their job. Even if the reporters' cool hadn't broken in the face of the suffering and monumental incompetence they encountered, the mere fact that they were there and rescuers weren't told us a lot.

That the head of FEMA, speaking on CNN, admitted that he did not know before Thursday, Sept. 1, what your average TV viewer in, say, Tucson knew the Sunday before--that thousands of people were jammed into the New Orleans Convention Center--told us the rest. But how was this incredible ignorance possible?

On Labor Day, the president's mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, revealed the assumptions that made the government's blunders comprehensible. During an interview on American Public Media's Marketplace, she said that things were "working very well for" the evacuees.

She'd been talking with evacuees while on a tour of the Astrodome with her husband, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (finally, Bush's press stylists had gotten a decent cast together):

"Almost everyone I've talked to says we're going to move to Houston. What I'm hearing which is sort of scary is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality.

"And so many of the people in the arena here," she explained, "you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this-- (she chuckled slightly) is working very well for them."

Losing everything, you see, isn't a big deal when you have so little to lose. Marie Antoinette would have understood.

Nearly nine years of increasingly arrogant rulership seem to have made the Bushes both clueless and, one hates to say it, a bit careless about exposing themselves. They seem to have thought that the brutality of public discourse in the United States these last few years, and the apparent triumph of selfishness as a patriotic virtue had coarsened our feelings to the point that we now see things their way.

We don't. By far the largest group in the U.S. now is us, the incredulous. We watched the reluctant, chaotic government response to Katrina in disbelief. We the people had no trouble understanding what the storm was, and we started helping while politicians at every level drug their feet.

The images have been both horribly familiar and impossibly shocking. Last week, The New York Times ran a photo of a naked, starving man being carried out of the New Orleans house where he had lain for two weeks. His body was so emaciated that he looked like he must have come from sub-Saharan Africa, from Somalia or Biafra or one of those hopeless little countries over there.

God help us he was from Louisiana, one of these United States.

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