"You know, they bury their dead above ground in New Orleans.
They always have.
In the cemeteries of the city you would always look up at the dead in their ornate and terrifying tombs, just as from some vantage points you would look up at the passing ships carrying an entire nation’s wealth up and down river.
Its swamps drained by the federal government’s canal builders and its private developers, New Orleans has been sinking for generations.
The city’s argument with water and nature futile, and loaded, like a spring with each passing year.
New Orleans shifting soil could never hold the dead. Neither could that soil hold the living against the fury of a hurricane that suddenly unwound some gigantic mainspring and hurled a people, a city, a nation, like the scattered parts of some antique pocket watch into a broken jumble . . . ornate and terrifying.
The trauma ripples out from the center, even now. It’s the familiar spiraling that began as a storm, a tropical depression, in an ocean, a blip on a weather radar, now the carving tool for a nation refashioned by the elements. A nation in the path of history’s maximum sustained winds, come ashore everywhere. No shelter, no escape.
And as I sit here with a writer’s detachment, and assemble and disassemble the ironies, examine the ornate and terrifying hindsights of Katrina, I am disgusted and filled with rage.
There is the trauma for those in the Gulf, uprooted and homeless, families decimated and lost. That trauma is staggering and yet comprehensible somehow. There is a social network for those most directly affected . . . tattered, stumbling, inadequate to be sure but it is there, the human-to-human grief now being heard by clinicians, pastors, aid workers . . . all the doctors without borders who have come to our grand unassailable borders, they have begun their work.
There is the trauma of a nation’s racial and economic divisions revealed in a stinking cesspool of a football stadium … a concentrated camp of inequities. The trauma of learning that our federal government with its sparkling new Department of Homeland Security was somehow unaware that cities in America are filled with hundreds of thousands of people without cars, without credit cards or hedge fund accounts who have nowhere to go when told to evacuate, who become silent invisible refugees when they step out of their driveways, or spend their most recent paycheck. This trauma is staggering, and yet in America the idea that the poor live somewhere down near the drain hole of our society is comprehensible. It is in fact an old story, for us.
But it is another trauma that fills me with rage. On a September morning when the sun is shining and the air is clear and the kids are getting dressed for another first day of school, I’m filled with rage and memory. Four years ago, the planes came unchallenged into the sky over my city and crashed and killed just as the hurricane was unchallenged by pitiful levees . . . then and now no plan, no defense, other than the “we mean business” sound bites. No security for the homeland in this nation of situation rooms.
“We’ll get to the bottom of this. We’re determined,” they say.
Twice in these four years we have seen a total and utter failure of institutions in America to protect the people of this nation.
What nation doesn’t defend its airspace from intruders when an attack was well-known, an enemy’s methods understood.
What “greatest nation on earth” won’t defend its precious, irreplaceable treasure New Orleans, from natural elements well-known, their destructive capacity well understood.
Last year the government of island Cuba withstood a category five hurricane, conducted an evacuation of 1.3 million people, and not a single person reportedly died.
The rage at watching media weather porn, captioned by well-rehearsed anchor incredulity, repackaged into instant network promos, government officials racking up campaign photo-ops and live TV flyovers calling for Americans to come together and reach into their pockets for the victims. “We will overcome,” they say.
Who are they to tell us?
My god, the rage.
What will people think a century on from these times of a people in a so-called democracy who accept leaders who leave them unprotected like this? Leaders who then send us off to wars built on reasons that shift like the silt under New Orleans. Leaders who organize telethons for the poor, while hiding behind a fortress of protection for their industries and their interests.
They will wonder, generations hence, about these Americans who waved their flags and sacrificed their young and gave up their homes, and jobs, and chalked it all up to some president’s slogan of a greater good. They will wonder, as I wonder, about these people so apparently enslaved, tyrannized by ritual tribal patriotism, sedated by episodic prosperity, out-of-sync with their environment and the rest of the world.
I look at the pictures of the people abandoned on the rooftops…and in each picture, there I am. It’s everyone for themselves . . . there is no plan . . . you’re on your own. It’s that realization, the trauma of that realization, that makes me wonder about America. The people do nothing but persevere, as expectations crumble, as the lies and rationalizations grow. Terrifying and ornate.
For The Infinite Mind, I’m John Hockenberry."
© 2005 Lichtenstein Creative Media