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September 02, 2005 || 8:39 pm
On the catastrophe

It's time, now the travelling has come to an end, to blog about the storm. I've had a lot of questions from friends and readers about it, but it's really hard to know where to start. Having been on the road, and therefore not glued to CNN, when it struck, I think we had quite a strange perspective on it. But in many ways, I think our gradual realisation of the depth and awfulness of this event mirrors the response of the authorities. And now I'm sitting in front of Larry King Live and the continuous roling coverage, I guess it's time for me to contribute my small thoughts on this disaster. I don't really know what kind of news is reaching the UK but I'll try to add some observations.

Firstly, I really have no words to describe the awfulness, the scale of this. More than the natural disaster of the storm itself, the absolute, total chaos that reigns everywhere, even far from the worst damage. Katrina hit over five days ago, yet it feels like absolutely no progress has been made to deal with the human and social disaster - in fact the reverse, the area is descending into increasing pandemonium. There has been a total breakdown of the rule of law. The scenes are straight out of central Africa, or the rioting slums of Latin America. People are raping, looting, shooting in the streets. No-one trusts in the authorities. Any semblance of control is absolutely false. The Red Cross is not operating in New Orleans because it is too dangerous, and police officers are deserting. Martial law is technically in place, but practically impossible. Analogies to the NGOs pulling out of Baghdad are not out of place. The mayor of NO has said that he doesn't think the city may survive another night of this anarchy, and he sounds, over a crackly phone line, absolutely desperate.

But what strikes me is that this social breakdown is absolutely symptomatic of the underlying frustration, rage and inequity that exists in the South. Behind the facade of the party city of New Orleans lies a huge black population living on the poverty line. It cannot excape notice that the crowds captured on camera roaming the streets are almost 100% black. White people simply can afford to evacuate, have somewhere to go, a way to pay for a motel or the gas to a northern city. While this will sound like a gross over-simplification, it is outrageously true. Poor blacks have no home insurance, no way to get out, no skills to deal with this kind of situation, to articulate what they need. The rage is genuine - Kanye West, the rapper, had made a statement that George Bush doesn't care about black Americans, and he speaks for many who feel absolutely abandoned.

The South always feels abandoned by federal government and this disaster, which in terms of death toll, sickness and destruction dwarfs 9/11, only reinforces this view that no-one cares. This is absolutely not to condone the violence and criminality that is occurring. But having had a year's experience of the South, let's be real about the lack of a strong social fabric in this region and the way it is ignored/glossed over until it boils over in these kind of ways. It should not surprise anyone that some people are acting in such bestial ways when the social fractures are as deep and complex as those in post-colonial Africa, somewhere that the 'West' now almost expects to react violently and suddenly to any event.

While aid agencies poured into the tsunami area, despite its massively bigger scale and devastation, America can't help its own five days after the event. The numbers of people are, relatively to other human catastrophes, small, but this is the world's richest country and yet absolutely no adequate response has been forthcoming. People are walking in raw sewage, because the National Guard and almost all its helicopters are in Iraq. Hospitals have no water or power, doctors are giving themselves intravenous drips because they are so malnourished.

I spoke today to Pam Dorr, who is trying to find ways to help in the area - and can't find a way to help. The authorities are telling agencies not to come to the area because they don't think there is anything they can do. Meanwhile, even Greensboro is sheltering people who have managed to evacuate. Every town has families turning up with awful stories - and they are the lucky ones who have managed to get out and aren't among the 50,000 trapped still in their flooded houses, waving flags from their roofs, or the ones who are trapped in the lawless convention center in NO. There are huge lines at every gas station and prices are going up and up - many stations are out of gas altogether. Everyone talks constant of the disaster, of the gas prices, the fear about what is going to happen socially and economically to the South. Although today Greensboro seemed normal and sleepy as usual, we are constantly reminded through these little moments of the horror going on south of us, which we feel absolutely powerless to help. Adverts are everywhere urging us to donate money but we can't see where that cash is going, because the distribution networks are so incapable of reaching the worst situations.

It makes me feel absolutely sick to my stomach. This, which could have been a disastrous, but manageable, disaster four days ago, has become a national disgrace threatneing to tear the fragile social and racial balance of the country apart.



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