When I think about the human disaster in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there are two moments that stand out in my mind. The first is George W. Bush’s press conference in Mississippi on September 2, during which he bounced uneasily from foot to foot like he couldn’t wait to get out of there, looking sullen and furrowed, observing with tense jocularity that Trent Lott’s house had been lost, too, and that “we” were going to rebuild him “a fantastic house” and that he, our President, was looking forward to rocking on the porch when that day came to pass. The second moment was the now-famous interview with Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff on National Public Radio. Media junkie that I am, I had the TV and the radio on at the same time. As pictures of the horrific conditions at the convention center, including the image of that poor old woman who had passed away in her wheelchair, were being broadcast to the world, Chertoff was insisting that he had no knowledge of any extreme conditions or deaths at the center. “Our reporter has seen [it],” insisted the host. “I can’t argue with you about what your reporter tells you,” said Chertoff.
I confess that I find myself filtering this horror through a very personal lens. It overlaps with the task of clearing out and selling the house I grew up in, the house my mother was born in, my grandmother’s house, a house that has belonged to my family for a hundred years. My distress at having to give it up is confused with the scenes of Katrina’s devastation that most of us–if not Chertoff–are witnessing. Against that appalling backdrop I find myself clinging to a sense of place, even though I am not truly or traumatically displaced. Mine was an African-American family that owned a home in times when so few did. As one of the neighbors put it tartly when discovering we were selling: “I’m African. We don’t sell our land.”
So I think about this as I look at the devastation of the Ninth Ward, for just one example, an area that has perhaps more African-American property owners than anyplace else in Louisiana. As I drove back and forth from the house I grew up in, carrying out pictures of my college graduation and my Latin notes from seventh grade, I heard a black woman on the radio describe how jarring it was to see the media describe her neighborhood as one riven by poverty and desperation. She was about to get her MBA, her brother already had his MBA, their extended family owned nine homes there, had insurance and owned cars in which they had fled for their lives. But it was the Ninth Ward; it was indeed being dubbed “poverty-stricken,” “corrupt,” “drug-ridden”; and politicians like Dennis Hastert were talking about bulldozing the entire area.
Race and class vied fiercely against each other–it’s just poverty, poverty, poverty, according to the many commentators who were busy denying that the devastation had any link to race. I guess we don’t like to talk about the way realtors take note of race–of how blacks “lower the property values” of the houses they move into, no matter how well kept. By the same token, when race was discussed, the black neighborhoods were almost romanticized as rickety, picturesque shantytowns destined for doom. The degree to which many of the black neighborhoods were also home to Louisiana’s deep-rooted black working, middle and professional classes seemed lost entirely.
I began to wonder what might happen if I were not engaged in the relatively leisurely process of packing up my memories but was forced to run for my life. If it were not tragic enough to lose everything to the hurricane, it must have been many times more traumatizing to endure the chaotic evacuation that followed. It is hard to tell what’s fact or fear in the witness accounts just yet, but the many descriptions of people being “sorted” in the shelters should give us pause. The elderly were taken from their families, the sick from their caretakers, newborns from their mothers and, because men were apparently segregated from women, husbands from wives, mothers from sons. I heard one unidentified authority saying that when people were evacuated to other states, they were not told where they were going so as to make them less unruly. But there were also accounts of white foreign nationals airlifted out “secretly” by National Guardsmen and warned not to go into the shelters because it was too dangerous for them.
On NPR a sociologist named Betty Hearn Morrow opined that it was less traumatic for people in distress to be grouped by their own kind. “That’s just human nature,” said Morrow. Putting people into groups reinforces a sense of familiarity and security, so they should be relocated “according to their backgrounds.” She gave an example of sorting people from Guatemala and Nicaragua and explained how that would help keep the peace.
My ears pricked up at this take on civil society; I wondered what “kind” I might appear to be in an evacuation. At 13, my son is almost six feet. If we were fleeing without any identification, would anyone believe he’s a child? Would he be sorted with adults? Would he be separated from me? Would we be put on separate buses to unknown compass points? Would it really becalm me with a sense of “familiarity” to be penned up and marched off with a group of other black women of my “background”?
According to Mayor Bloomberg, the City of New York has been divided into grids in case of catastrophe. People would be ordered from their homes, or taken by force if necessary, and marshaled along preset routes to reception centers, where they would be identified by Social Security number and then relocated. I want to be a good citizen, part of the orderliness of a well-managed response to disaster. But with the images of New Orleans in mind, why on earth would any of us stream willingly toward chaos? It seems to me that one of the most pressing issues for the future is clarifying the precise protocols for evacuation. If it is true that families are to be broken up as a means of crowd control, then perhaps just a little public discussion is in order, no? And if it is true that white foreign nationals are a higher priority than black solid citizens, to what then do we pledge allegiance?