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Disgust in the Aftermath of Katrina

Barun Singh

Hurricane Katrina is leaving in its wake what will likely be remembered as one of the worst tragedies of American history. The death toll will almost certainly number in the thousands, with orders of magnitude more people displaced from their homes. While this is terrible enough, the real tragedy is in people’s reactions to the devastation.

It is said that a person’s true character is revealed in times of struggle and crisis. If that is true, the desperate people in New Orleans have made a strong statement indeed. The eruption of utter chaos in the wake of Katrina is perhaps one of the saddest and most pathetic things I have ever seen. Looting deserted stores is perfectly understandable with people dying all around and help nowhere to be found; there is no reason not to seek out essential supplies from wherever you can. But holding up an ambulance at gunpoint or shooting at supply-carrying helicopters, so you can horde those resources for yourself, is nothing short of utterly deplorable.

The situation has gotten so bad that ambulances have stopped going into the city. Helicopters seeking to airlift sick infants are unable to land. Doctors — seeking only to save as many lives as possible — are fearful for their own safety. The city is quickly becoming a war zone, and not because of the water or devastation from the hurricane. No, this devastation is being caused solely by the inhabitants of the city, and they are inflicting it upon themselves out of a simple lack of principles.

Any person in a state of crisis is likely to think and act differently than they normally would. One cannot attribute to basic human nature, however, the complete loss of morality in such a situation. Overwhelmingly in history, tragedy brings out the best in most people. This was the situation just one year ago after the tsunami killed over 150,000 in East Asia (a far worse disaster than this from any angle). Reports from those who were present in the villages of Indonesia or Sri Lanka spoke not of violence and selfishness, but of people banding together and working as a community to cope and rebuild. While it is always the case that some people turn to their worst in the face of disaster, “every man for himself” seems to be the mode of operation for a disturbingly large portion of the citizenry left in New Orleans.

Are these reactions reflective of something in the American culture? Is it specific to New Orleans (which does have a much higher than average crime rate)? Perhaps it relates to the fact that the majority of those remaining in the city are from the lower socio-economic classes. Whatever the reason may be, one thing we can be sure of is that any society in which individuals lose all semblance of humanity in the face of struggle is not one that can survive for long.

The reaction of the government to the tragic situation is almost equally disturbing. People have been huddled into the New Orleans Convention Center for over three days — many have no food, and no water. We live in the richest country in the world and somehow we don’t have enough resources to bring enough water to a city within our own borders? We have 400,000 military personnel in other countries, but we don’t have enough left to keep order on the streets at home? We don’t have enough military doctors and nurses to help the sick and injured in a time of crisis? This is a national emergency; three days should be more than enough to get organized. Perhaps more time should be spent actually planning contingencies for disasters, instead of simply touting the utility of color-coded “terror alert systems.”

At least the government was prepared to supply enough oil to ensure that the hurricane wouldn’t affect short-term gas prices too much, even while it failed to supply basic nourishment to the stranded and dying — clearly our priorities are in the right place.
Of course, the government is taking measures to help the people affected by Katrina. But it is much too little, too late. On top of it, even the elected representatives of the state are disgusted at the behavior of its citizenry. Based on what we have seen so far, this hurricane will leave a much bigger and longer-term impact on our society than its physical destruction — one which will be much harder to deal with than reconstructing a city.

Barun Singh is a graduate student and former president of the Graduate Student Council. Mr. Singh welcomes comments at his Web site (http://barunsingh.com).