September 3rd, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

New Orleans: Why They Were Left to Die of Thirst (NOT a Rant)

When President Bush was touring the ruins of Biloxi yesterday, he gave a brief, improvised news conference. During the Q&A, one of the questions was, "What do you think the people in New Orleans need the most, right now?" Bush replied something to the effect of security, or law and order. I screamed when I heard him say that. Not loudly, but literally, yes, I screamed with anger and horror and frustration.

As of when he said that, it had been over four days since drinking water had reached the refugee center at the New Orleans convention center. A human being in excellent health can last 3 days without drinking water with minimal adverse results. But many of those people were not in excellent health even before the hurricane hit. And that 3 day rule assumes cool temperatures, minimal exposure to direct sunlight, and minimal physical exertion. None of those conditions applied. It will be years, literally years before we know how many people died in New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina, and many of the dead we will never know, because of the condition of their corpses, what killed them. But basic medicine tells me that people have to have died by the dozens, probably by the hundreds, from thirst ... and the Bush administration was keeping relief supplies out of the city at the time, because they thought it wasn't safe.

And for the life of me, I could not figure out what the federal government was so afraid of that they thought it was better to let people die by the dozens and hundreds rather than risk delivering a few cargo helicopter loads, let alone a single convoy, of drinking water and most-critical medications like Imodium, amoxycillin, insulin, tetanus boosters, and nitroglycerin tablets. Yes, there had been shots fired. To the best of my knowledge still, only one person has actually been actually hit by gunfire, a guardsman wounded in the leg. Hell, compared to pre-flood New Orleans, one non-fatal shooting in four days is a low crime rate! And yet, before the flood, wholesalers routinely shipped food and medicine into New Orleans in trucks with unarmed drivers and no backup!

Ah, but delivery drivers did have backup before the flood -- there were, at least in theory, New Orleans police who would have responded to a truck hijacking. Now most of the cops had evacuated, or abandoned their posts, or were busy saving lives. So before the Bush administration was willing to let even one truckload of supplies enter the disaster zone, they felt that first the site had to be secured. And standing in Biloxi, he said as much, including a deliberatly ominous warning to the people of New Orleans that those relief convoys were going to be escorted by the full might of the US military, by people with machine guns "locked and loaded, who know what to do with them."

I watched the NBC camera crew's footage, and interviews, from inside the convention center and from the streets around it by day, and what I saw was my neighbors. No, really. None of those people would have looked out of place, even dressed the way they were, in my lower middle class suburban neighborhood in August. The journalists themselves, not being from my kind of neighborhood, clearly expected things to be worse than they were. At the convention center, where thousands had been left to fend for themselves, they found that in the intervening three days people had managed to recreate civil society. They were organized into small groups, each with assigned care-takers from among the healthy and semi-skilled, each with a designated spokesperson. As we watched on camera, we saw a nurse's aide check a child's blood sugar, panic, and call out for insulin. The group's designated leader set out on foot to ask the leaders of nearby groups ... and returned in a matter of minutes with a clean injector full of insulin, one that a nearby group felt they could spare for a child who hadn't had any in days. I saw Americans at their best, caring for each other heroically, under 3rd world conditions.

Other people looked at the same situation and saw Mogadishu during the last Somali civil war. They saw Port au Prince after either of the last several coups d'etat in Haiti. They saw armed, desperate people with no law enforcement presence to stop them from doing whatever they wanted. They knew, and they knew that those armed, desperate people knew, that some day they would be allowed to exit the disaster zone, and on that day those armed, desperate people would get to keep any cash they had on them, and that if they were smart, they would have hidden any embarrassingly large sums of cash where they could come back for it later. What I think they could imagine all too easily was that if the Red Cross had been allowed to, say, drive in a truckload of bottled water, that truck might have been hijacked, and the water sold to anybody who could pay, and then the rest of the water destroyed rather than delivered to anybody who couldn't pay, to keep from depressing the price of smuggled water. After all, similar things did happen to food convoys in Mogadishu. Until the Army National Guard was ready to go in with M-16s at the ready, in large numbers backed by armored convoys, there was no way to guarantee that it wouldn't happen in New Orleans.

Who was right? I think I was. Well, of course I do, just as they think that they were right. I live in a neighborhood not very different from the worst-hit neighborhoods in New Orleans, so I think I know these kinds of people better than any country club Republican does. But we will literally never know, now, which of us was right.