Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Katrina rhetoric fails to calm storm

Katrina rhetoric fails to calm storm
By Andrew Ward
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: August 22 2006 18:33 | Last updated: August 22 2006 18:33

Visitors to the New Orleans Gift and Jewelry Show this week could have been forgiven for thinking that life in the Big Easy is back to normal.

Hundreds of people descended on the city’s Ernest N. Morial convention centre to hunt for bargains among stalls selling everything from loose diamonds and Rolex watches to crystal glassware and designer perfume, with a Starbucks coffee kiosk on hand to stave off thirst.

Nowhere in the sprawling venue was there any sign of the horror and suffering that occurred under the same roof a year ago next week, when more than 20,000 people sought refuge in the building following Hurricane Katrina.

For three days, the overwhelmingly poor and black refugees were left to fester in sweltering, airless conditions without food or liquid as the relief effort stalled.

The harrowing scenes, reminiscent of a third world camp, exposed an urban, black underclass that appeared to have been abandoned – literally and metaphorically – by the wealthiest nation on earth. For a brief period, the US was shamed into a national debate about its racial and economic divisions.

President George W. Bush acknowledged the “deep, persistent poverty” experienced by many blacks and blamed it on “a history of racial discrimination that cut off generations from the opportunity of America”.

“We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action,” he said.

But 12 months later, the business-as-usual atmosphere at the refurbished convention centre demonstrates how quickly the issue of social justice has fallen off the national agenda.

According to the Washington Post, Mr Bush has mentioned the word “poverty” in public only six times since his post-Katrina speeches and the debate over racial inequality proved no more durable.

“Katrina created an opening for America to deal seriously with these issues,” says David Dante Troutt, editor of After the Storm, a collection of essays by black intellectuals about the disaster. “But the opportunity was missed.”

Despite growth in the economy, the proportion of African-Americans living below the poverty line has increased during the Bush presidency to nearly a quarter – double the national average.

Nowhere are African-Americans more disadvantaged than in New Orleans, where four out of 10 black families lived in poverty before Katrina and 60 per cent of poor blacks had no access to a car, leaving them stranded as the storm approached. A year later, most of the city’s black population is still dispersed across the country, many without the resources to return and rebuild.

Standing outside her mother’s damaged home in the Gentilly district, Joanne Johnson makes no attempt to hide her bitterness. “We had their attention for five minutes, then they moved on,” she says. “They can afford to pay for a war in Iraq but they can’t afford to look after their own people.”

To Ms Johnson, 45, a supermarket worker, “they” seems to refer to the Bush administration and white America, as if the two are interchangeable.

Like many African-Americans, she believes the authorities intentionally broke the levees near black neighbourhoods to spare wealthier, white districts. “People heard the explosion,” she says.

The allegation is a rehashed version of an urban myth dating back to Hurricane Betsy in 1965. But the widespread belief in the theory underlines the extent of mistrust among blacks towards the white-dominated state and federal governments. “Katrina has exacerbated racial divisions rather than healed them,” says Douglas Brinkley, a New Orleans historian and author of The Great Deluge.

For many whites, the lasting impression of Katrina’s aftermath was not images of poverty, but instead the pictures of black people looting stores and reports of rape and murder in the convention centre and Superdome. “Many whites saw the looting as a violation of a social contract,” says Lance Hill, executive director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University in New Orleans. “It strengthened the association in their minds between poor blacks and criminality and made them feel less guilty about the poverty.”

Subsequent investigations showed that the reports were wildly exaggerated. But the perception that New Orleans was descending into anarchy delayed the relief effort as officials shifted focus from aid to security.

Some in New Orleans resent the focus on black poverty, arguing that many middle-class people, white and black, also lost homes to Katrina. But, as the anniversary nears, even the briefest drive through the city reveals an obvious truth: wealthier neighbourhoods are recovering much quicker than poor black ones.

The only part of life that has returned to normal for poor black communities is gang-related crime. The city recorded 21 murders in July, most of them involving young black men.

This apparent return to the bad old days raises doubts about whether the billions of dollars of federal aid committed to New Orleans can solve the city’s social ills. June Cross, a filmmaker researching a documentary on Katrina, doubts there is the will to even try. “America views urban poverty in the same bracket as famine in Africa,” she says. “People think it’s sad but there’s nothing that can be done about it.”


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