When the Levee Breaks

We were all shocked to see photos and stories from the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It was in part a natural disaster, but it was a much greater failure of government and society as a whole. It was unfathomable that in the richest and most powerful country in the world, we saw scenes of chaos, suffering, and refugees worse than any third-world nation. A major US city was reduced to a festering pool of waste, with frantic survivors waiting for rescue that seemed never to arrive.

I had never really grasped the depths of the racial and economic divide in the American South until I read about those abandoned in the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center. Twenty percent of New Orleans residents don’t have cars. Twenty percent live below the poverty line. Forty percent are “functionally illiterate”. Those people – the poor, the black and the elderly, could not leave the city when the mayor called for general evacuation. Then when the waters rose, those people were ignored for days while officials dithered. In that time the thin veneer of civilization was be stripped away, society collapsed, and people started living like animals.

Contrast this with the equally devastating flood in Bombay, India earlier this summer. Thousands of poor and elderly were killed in the sudden floods. Government and the military were completely unable to cope with the disaster, and people largely had to fend for themselves. But a friend of mine who was caught in the floods told stories of how people helped one another. Even the poorest vendors offered free food to passersby. And nobody broke into gun shops or shot at their rescuers.

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