Monday, September 05, 2005

The Body Count Begins; Survivors Still Waiting for Help

NOTE: I made nonsubstantive edits to this piece for conciseness; so I redated it and put it on top again.

The news today is filled with horror stories. The Associated Press reports that New Orleans officials have started to gather up and count the bodies; and there are staggering numbers of them.

With large-scale evacuations completed at the Superdome and Convention Center, the death toll was not known. But bodies were everywhere: floating in canals, slumped in wheelchairs, abandoned on highways and medians and hidden in attics.

"I think it's evident it's in the thousands," Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said Sunday on CNN, echoing predictions by city and state officials last week. The U.S. Public Health Service said one morgue alone, at a St. Gabriel prison, expected 1,000 to 2,000 bodies.

In the first official count in the New Orleans area, Louisiana emergency medical director Louis Cataldie said authorities had verified 59 deaths -- 10 of them at the Superdome.

"We need to prepare the country for what's coming," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on "Fox News Sunday." "We are going to uncover people who died, maybe hiding in houses, got caught by the flood. ... It is going to be about as ugly of a scene as I think you can imagine."

Those who survived physically are obviously going to be dealing with the emotional and psychological consequences of their experiences for years to come. That includes the people whose job it is to rescue the living, recover the dead, and comfort the traumatized. About 200 New Orleans police officers have left their jobs; and two officers killed themselves. The home of one of the two officers was destroyed, and his family could not be found. The other officer, according to a high-ranking colleague, was one of the best men on the force.

"We need help," said Charles Parent, the superintendent of the Fire Department. Mr. Parent again appealed in an interview on Saturday for replacement fire trucks and radio equipment from federal authorities. And Mr. Compass again appealed for more federal help.

"When I have officers committing suicide," Mr. Compass [the superintendent of police] said, "I think we've reached a point when I don't know what more it's going to take to get the attention of those in control of the response."

Tens of thousands of survivors are still waiting to be evacuated, five days after the levees burst. Pres. Bush continues to blame state and local authorities for the delay, even if he has to lie to do so.

The president of Jefferson Parish, Aaron Broussard, broke down in tears on "Meet the Press" as he told the story of a neighbor whose mother drowned after five days of waiting for someone to come and rescue her from the rising waters.

"The guy who runs this building I'm in, emergency management, he's responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home, and every day she called him and said, `Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?' And he said, `And yeah, Momma, somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday' _ and she drowned Friday night. She drowned on Friday night," Broussard said.

"Nobody's coming to get her, nobody's coming to get her. The secretary's promise, everybody's promise. They've had press conferences _ I'm sick of the press conferences. For God's sakes, shut up and send us somebody."

The complete transcript is here.

Every day, it seems, there are more examples of the president's breathtaking failure to "get it." Andrew Sullivan notes that, upon arriving at the airport in Mobile, Alabama, Bush made a joke about Trent Lott's house:

[BUSH]: We've got a lot of rebuilding to do. First, we're going to save lives and stabilize the situation. And then we're going to help these communities rebuild. The good news is -- and it's hard for some to see it now -- that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, like it was before. Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott's house -- he's lost his entire house -- there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch. (Laughter.)

GOVERNOR RILEY: He'll be glad to have you.

Andrew says:

Just think of that quote for a minute; and the laughter that followed. The poor and the black are dying, dead, drowned and desperate in New Orleans and elsewhere. But the president manages to talk about the future "fantastic" porch of a rich, powerful white man who only recently resigned his position because he regretted the failure of Strom Thurmond to hold back the tide of racial desegregation.

* * *

Frank Rich reminds us that Pres. Bush wasted no time in cutting a vacation short to sign legislation intended to keep a feeding tube attached to a woman in a persistent vegetative state -- so he is certainly willing to "play politics with tragedy" in some instances. It's also incredibly peculiar that Bush would drop everything to "save the life" of a woman who was not even conscious of her surroundings; yet displayed no equivalent sense of urgency when floodwaters submerged an entire city, endangering the lives of thousands.

Anne Rice writes eloquently about New Orleans' rich history as a center of African-American culture, and why losing it matters. She also answers the clueless, repeated questions about why so many people did not leave the city when the hurricane struck:

...Almost as soon as the cameras began panning over the rooftops, and the helicopters began chopping free those trapped in their attics, a chorus of voices rose. "Why didn't they leave?" people asked both on and off camera. "Why did they stay there when they knew a storm was coming?" One reporter even asked me, "Why do people live in such a place?"

Then as conditions became unbearable, the looters took to the streets. Windows were smashed, jewelry snatched, stores broken open, water and food and televisions carried out by fierce and uninhibited crowds.

Now the voices grew even louder. How could these thieves loot and pillage in a time of such crisis? How could people shoot one another? Because the faces of those drowning and the faces of those looting were largely black faces, race came into the picture. What kind of people are these, the people of New Orleans, who stay in a city about to be flooded, and then turn on one another?

Well, here's an answer. Thousands didn't leave New Orleans because they couldn't leave. They didn't have the money. They didn't have the vehicles. They didn't have any place to go. They are the poor, black and white, who dwell in any city in great numbers; and they did what they felt they could do - they huddled together in the strongest houses they could find. There was no way to up and leave and check into the nearest Ramada Inn.

What's more, thousands more who could have left stayed behind to help others. They went out in the helicopters and pulled the survivors off rooftops; they went through the flooded streets in their boats trying to gather those they could find. Meanwhile, city officials tried desperately to alleviate the worsening conditions in the Superdome, while makeshift shelters and hotels and hospitals struggled.

Anne Rice has her eccentric side, but she is right on point here, and what she says will have to be said again and again because a lot of Americans don't get it. That's clear from NBC's censoring of Kanye West's comment on a star-studded nationally televised concert to help the hurricane victims. He said, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

This is a personal opinion, certainly, but it's one shared by many if not most black people and quite a few white people as well (like me). It's hardly controversial -- or it shouldn't be. More to the point, Kanye West had every right to say what he said, and not have his words yanked off the air for the West Coast viewers: After all, as the LA Times's Robert Hilburn pointed out, the people this concert was supposed to help are for the most part the people who are most likely to identify with the rap artist's words:

By censoring Grammy-winning rapper Kanye West's remarks critical of President Bush during its West Coast feed of the program Friday night, the network violated the most moving and essential moment in an otherwise sterile, self-serving corporate broadcast.

"It would be most unfortunate," the network said in a statement defending its action, "if the efforts of the artists who participated tonight and the generosity of millions of Americans who are helping those in need are overshadowed by one person's opinion."

Excuse me, but whose tragedy is this: NBC's or America's?

NBC may have been nervous about West's comments, including the notion that America and its president are unresponsive to the needs of the poor. But you can be sure those remarks would have been cheered more than anything else in the program by the black parents and children still trapped in the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome if they had been able to hear them.

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