Epiphany on Canal Street


The order to evacuate New Orleans sounded as I departed New York for eastern Europe on Sunday 28 August. A US resident for only seven years, even I knew that a hit by a hurricane on that city would breach the flood levees and destroy it.

Two days later, in the Baltic town I was visiting, word of mouth from anxious American expatriates alerted me to the failed evacuation and the epic scale of the disaster. I was disbelieving. Why hadn’t all the residents of New Orleans left?
I phoned my American wife, back home in New Jersey, and she tearfully explained the situation. Those without cars, the poorest, the sick and the elderly had been abandoned. There were no buses or trains for them. Then, in a hotel lobby, I saw the CNN pictures: black faces, people in hospital gowns, babies dehydrating, desperate mothers, a body in a wheelchair, despairing news reporters, ragged and spent from rescuing people.

And the legendary US cavalry still hadn’t arrived.

It was confusing. It was shocking, and shameful. The least able had been left behind in the evacuation.

I’m catching up on the size of the disaster, and the response to it, from my home in Bradley Beach this American Labor Day long weekend – the official end of the summer holidays. Beaches are crowded, but firemen with buckets for donations patrol street intersections. Like many of our neighbours, we’ve pooled funds and bought relief supplies to send south. It’s time to help the victims, but in the anguished response of ordinary Americans, a new understanding seems evident already: the American leadership has failed, shamed, deceived and humiliated its people.

Thanks to Peter Leahy at the Courier-mail

Thanks to Peter Leahy at the Courier-Mail

This is not a new reality, but the New York Times‘s conservative columnist David Brooks suggests this disaster has made for a bursting point of recognition. Hurricane Katrina has stripped away the fig leaves of government respectability. And the nation is appalled – this is evident in the astonishing consensus of news reports, blogging and commentary that crosses the conservative “liberal divide.

All agree that the leadership failure in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exposes a cesspit of unresolved racism and classism that a complacent America has tolerated and institutionalised in cities like New Orleans.

They also note that American exceptionalism – the stubborn belief that the US is a nation above the baser instincts of the rest – seems foolish now. In the American mind, the images of thugs preying on the desperate, shooting at rescuers, raping and murdering with impunity, belong in Baghdad, not in New Orleans or Gulfport. Even the massive devastation – reminiscent of the recent tsunami in the Indian Ocean – is beyond popular conception of what’s possible in the US. But the shaking of fundamental certainties goes much further.

The can-do nation was paralysed for three days. What went wrong? The best analysis I’ve seen suggests the chest-thumping pride of the Bush Administration is to blame (click Thanks to Peter Leahy at the Courier-mail

Thanks to Peter Leahy at the Courier-Mail

Here is just a snapshot of American leadership in the past decade: presidents who conspire to deceive about sexual favours from interns, or leading the world to war; senior politicians openly rewarded by lobbyists; superior court judges deciding elections, who signal opinions while hunting with their buddies; an epidemic of business executives stealing the retirement nest-eggs of tens of thousands of their employees or clients; an attorney general authorising, and military generals carrying out torture on enemies, while CIA officers kidnap and smuggle suspects to nations where extreme torture is normal; church leaders protecting paedophiles or announcing holy war against politicians who defy their theocratic agenda.

The widespread corruption, has, until Katrina, been varnished over by media management – an unprecedented White House investment in anticipatory media choreography. As a sadder and wiser American public demands accountability for the betrayal of New Orleans, I am hopeful that apparent immunity through whitewashing will no longer be possible.

There is no external enemy to blame in this entirely foreseeable natural disaster, just incompetent administrators of public safety all the way to the top. We can hope for a redemptive shift in American perceptions of leadership from this tragedy. But for tens of thousands in the state of Louisiana it’s too late.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.