Katrina: a perspective from Provence

NYONS, FRANCE.  Thursday morning is market day here; the town bursts with a brilliant array of vibrant colors and marvelous aromas, the magnificent bounty–despite the serious summer drought–of the Provençal soil and Mediterranean sea.  Last week I met my friends Edie and Hugo at the Brasserie de la Bourse for a late-morning market-day coffee that, as so often happens, evolved into lunch. Hugo and Edie live in Manhattan and have a vacation home in Provence; they both grew up in the American South. In typical Provençal style, our moule frites lunch gently stretched to four hours. The superb New Orleans jazz trio that works the Nyons market was blasting us out of our seats with melodious jive and we finally moved to a quieter table where we could talk. Naturally we discussed the still-breaking news from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Hugo recalled an article in Scientific American around four years ago warning unless serious preventive measures were taken immediately, New Orleans would suffer exactly the catastrophe–at that time preventible–that has now befallen it. I too remembered reading similar articles years ago.  The full horror had yet to hit those outside the disaster area, news reports were spotty and I admit I’d become fixated on the lunacy of putting 11,000 people in an ill-equipped football stadium, the Superdome in New Orleans, and then shlepping them by school-bus convoy to another ill-equipped football stadium, the Astrodome, in Texas, as if they weren’t already in a low enough rung of hell. I was also obsessed with the apparent blackout of reliable up-to-the-minute information and mortality statistics once that number had exceeded 50. We agreed the number was probably in the thousands, if not tens of thousands, but it was still all somewhat abstract and distant and somewhere, against all reason, we were hoping maybe it would not be as catastrophic as deep down we knew it was. Hugo and Edie hadn’t been home to watch the French tv news; they are on vacation, which I’m not. I live in Provence year round and had been glued to French tv news since Monday. I described to them the floating dead people, the helpless and stranded, the destruction beyond anything imaginable, even after the Asian tsunami of 2004. By Thursday evening (French time), the scope of the devastation was unraveling for the world to see. My best friend Paige in New York and I stayed closely in touch. Her reports on what was being shown on American television bore no resemblance to the horrors playing out across my tv screen in France. I was in tears, sickened in a way no American should ever have to be. I was ashamed of my country, once again, but even more I was revolted and angry to the point of being ill.  French people are genetically predisposed to be polite (at least to one’s face) and at first my neighbors and friends were hesitant to speak of what they too were seeing and reading. Once they realized I was bordering apoplexy, they were more forthcoming. How could it be? This was (already they were using the past tense) the strongest, richest, most powerful country in the world. How could this happen? They weren’t angry, they weren’t judging or gloating; they were shocked, stunned, saddened, let down in a way they didn’t want to be.  The commentators on tv echoed those sentiments; repeatedly, they kept saying, “You are not watching scenes from Africa, from Asia, from a Third World country….”  A few people reluctantly approached the subject: did I know, had I known before, about the poverty, the blacks, “they’re almost all black,” they kept saying, “it’s all black people left behind, they’re so poor, we had no idea…”  Yes, sadly, I had to admit, I did know, had known, and yet… The scenes on tv–at least on French tv–have been shattering, especially gut-wrenching because they expose and lay bare in the most graphic way the epidemic of obscene poverty, neglect, crime and deprivation that were so clearly entrenched long before Katrina struck.   Someone remarked to me at their shock at seeing so many clearly poor amputees, most likely caused by diabetes, a treatable, manageable disease for the most part.  French people kept saying over and over, as if they couldn’t believe their eyes, “They’re all black, all the ones left behind to die are black.” Poor whites and blacks–67.3% of the New Orleans population (2000) is black. A visiting American tourist remarked to me, “What’s wrong with those Southern blacks? They always were slow as molasses! Why the hell didn’t they get out?” I bit my lip, I bit my tongue, I nearly swallowed my face before I was able to point out for starters one needed a car, a luxury item more than 100,000 people in New Orleans didn’t have. Viewed from abroad, perhaps things are clearer. The arrogance and indifference of a President who played golf the day after Katrina struck, who waited three days before he made a tv appearance and five days before he made a quickie photo-opportunity visit to New Orleans, smiling and joking on his way down about his wild days boozin’ it up in “the great city of N’Awlins,” the great city that was now all but destroyed because of callous ineptitude, incompetence, indifference and greed. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, the former Chief of Homeland Security, meanwhile was vacationing in Manhattan, playing tennis with Monica Seles, hooting it up at the Monty Python Broadway hit, Spamalot, and shopping for several thousand dollars worth of dress shoes at the Ferragamo boutique on Fifth Avenue. When another customer approached her, reportedly saying, “How dare you shop for shoes while thousands are dying and homeless,” the Secretary of State had her physically evicted from the store, a homeland security risk, no doubt. Shamed by New Yorkers, bloggers and the press into returning to Washington, Condi was quick to explain to the country, “Nobody, especially the President would have left people unattended on the basis of race.” Race? perhaps…
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