The Eye of the Storm


Imagine Brisbane destroyed so as to be uninhabitable.

That’s the extent of the damage that has been suffered by the residents of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama from Hurricane Katrina. Imagine that every resident of Brisbane needs temporary housing and their homes and suburbs need rebuilding, and imagine what that might require of Queensland and the nation. This is what the three southern states and the whole American republic grapple with now.

Sure, the loss of New Orleans was foreseen and ignored by the Clinton and both Bush Administrations. The black poverty of Louisiana and Mississippi made these states inconsequential as electorates. That’s very clear now. However, Katrina went way beyond flooding New Orleans. It’s the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of the US There is irreplaceable cultural loss but it seems from the responses I’m hearing it’s also experienced as a crushing blow to faith in America as the greatest nation on earth.

Its impact on the national psyche can’t be fathomed yet. But since the levees burst in New Orleans, two hopeful responses emerged for me vividly, and sharply defined against the missing governments that we all wrongly assumed had the competence to provide immediate relief and rescue.

First, journalists at the scene reported without fear or favour – at last – and television news reporters advocated boldly for the powerless. So at least there’s honesty although, I ask myself has US journalism really rallied to its ethical fundamentals and will it last? (click Thanks to Bill Leak at <i>The Australian</i>”  ></p>
<p><span><small>Thanks to <a href=Bill Leak at The Australian

Three weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, my New Jerseyan neighbours and New Yorker colleagues, like me, are still processing the failure of the federal and state governments to respond. We have new help. Until now, even the self-criticism of major dailies like the New York Times hasn’t disguised their conformance to the siren songs of nationalism. But with the renewed eyes of journalists who experienced hell alongside the flood battered residents, words like ‘corruption’, ‘incompetence’, and ‘cronyism’ are being substantiated with detailed stories. And no one now feels confident about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or the Department of Homeland Security.

For once in the land of Disney optimism, the news media isn’t allaying fears (click here for the New York Times view).It was journalists grappling with the hurricane’s impact who taught us to understand the million displaced people as ‘refugees’; even though it offends American sensibilities. I’ve heard a number of responses like, ‘We’re the country that rebuilt Europe with the Marshall Plan in six years. We can rebuild New Orleans!’

On day four of the tragedy, a telephone conversation with a woman in Dallas yielded this response to the news: ‘I can’t believe I’m actually seeing the Third World in our country!’ When pressed about what’s happening in Dallas she was almost petulant, ‘Well, we’re getting a lot of refugees coming in!’ ‘Refugee’ was pejorative. And what was her first priority? ‘Well you know we love our SUVs down here, so before gas prices go up and crazy line-ups begin I’m going straight down to the local gas station to fill up.’ (SUVs: Sports Utility Vehicles or four wheel drives.)

Day five: Richard Rodriguez on public television’s Lehrer News Hour created a video essay giving words to what Americans don’t want to believe: we’re seeing the Third World in the US, both by the scale of the disaster and in the response of victims and government.

NBC’s news anchor Brian Williams, has surprised the nation by his edgy advocacy, his on-air challenges to some of the most powerful people in the land for their inaction, his repeated on-location newscasting in New Orleans and the establishment of an NBC Gulf Coast Bureau simply because this story has years to run yet. At least for Williams (click here),
PBS’s David Brancaccio (click here) and for CNN’s Anderson Cooper (click here)
truth appears to be worth the risk of giving a voice to the voiceless.

Such televised reports have begun a shift in American perception that could become as profound as the reporting that propelled the civil rights movement to dismantle segregation. And it’s likely for months ahead that many print and television journalists will remain in the shattered states and monitor the way people are treated and resources are deployed.

My wife has lived in Jackson, Mississippi. She feels the pain of every new story emerging so acutely that, like many in the US, we’re now on a list to volunteer in Louisiana or Mississippi with an agency assisting the homeless.

Southern state communities have mobilised, with the logistical support of their churches, synagogues, temples and mosques, to provide immediate personal and material comfort to refugees. By its contrast to government in both focus and immediacy, I’ve glimpsed a world at work without the need of Federal officials and administrators. In the Christian South, this disaster of biblical proportions got a biblical response from the full spectrum of churches and especially the much-maligned Southern Baptist Conference(click here).

Large and small southern churches threw open the doors of their facilities and homes to house tens of thousands of people without prevaricating over risks and costs. Faith-based agencies, through their own Disaster National Network website, have even had the smarts to register as Federal Emergency Management Agency facilities, improving the flow of government resources to the needy (click here).

Relief of suffering and reconstruction of homes and neighbourhoods, schools, businesses and places of worship for a million people is a challenge worthy of the best we know of the US. Bodies are still being recovered and buried, but delivering truth in news reporting and mercy from the worshipping communities provides glints of hope for the destroyed communities of the south.

The challenge will be to sustain these values through the tumultuous times that lie ahead.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.