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 not, but substitute “income” (or rather the lack of it) and there’s no argument. Vice-President Cheney was vacationing in Wyoming and was not to be disturbed for more than a week, plus he was busy clinching the deal on a $2.9 million vacation home for himself. Michael Chertoff, the Chief of Homeland Security, when asked on National Public Radio several days into the catastrophe about the thousands of desperate people without food, water or medical supplies who were starving and stranded in the New Orleans Convention Center, something we already knew about here in France, his response was it must be “a rumor,” “someone’s anecdotal version of something” because he knew nothing about it. And then there’s Michael Brown, the Director of FEMA, known fondly as “Brownie” by the dministration frat boys, a failed ex-lawyer with a degree from a semi-accredited law school whose last job was judging horses for something called the Arabian Horse Association. Well, Brownie got his job as chief of the agency in charge of life-and-death disasters that strike down and threaten to destroy the American people because he was the college roommate of a friend of a friend and because he blatantly lied about his alleged emergency management experience in his brief job as the equivalent to an intern in the office of the city manager of Edmond, Oklahoma, population 68,000, of which 85% are non-Hispanic whites, 4% are black and the median household income in 2000 was $54,556, exactly double the median income for New Orleans in 2000 and more than $12,000 above the national median. After declaring to the world, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!”, under intense pressure from public opinion, W. reassigned Brownie’s responsibilities presumably after Brownie had had “the good Mexican meal and stiff Margarita” he told the world he was looking forward to.  And then there was the former First Lady of the land, who also happens to be the President’s mother. After touring Houston’s Astrodome in another photo-opportunity, she gushed on the radio show “Marketplace,” “Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality.   …so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”  Apparently, though she didn’t mention it, the cataclysmic tragedy is also working very well for Halliburton, Halliburton subsidiaries, Tetra Technologies, and Bechtel, among others, all closely allied to the Bush family and administrations and already profiting royally from the disastrous American war in Iraq.Much has been said about not focussing on “anecdotal” material considering the American leaders; we should be with the victims, our hearts and focus should be with them; we shouldn’t be pointing fingers or “playing the blame game.” Since when is there an either/or, since when are the two mutually exclusive?! The cosmic failure to prepare for and respond to this deadly homeland catastrophe took place on many levels, with responsibility starting at the top, as it always should. This is a concept Bush and his frat-boy cronies don’t seem to grasp: accountability. To them it’s all a game played out on the superdome of the planet and the astrodome of the universe, in which they become even more filthy rich and powerful than they already are. Global warming, the Tokyo protocol? Increasing levels of extreme poverty in America? Disappearance of the middle class? Alternative fuels? Health insurance for all? The list goes on and on, but all we get is a an idiotic MAD magazine what-me-worry smirk, a shrug, who could have known?  There is something called leadership, leadership that goes hand-in-hand with responsibility and accountability (asking for dignity as well is too much to hope for). America has not had such a thing for a very long time. Instead we have an Administration obsessed with damage control, not to its citizens and other peoples of the world but to its phony, hypocritical, and calculated projected image. Katrina has put a lie to all that.  The whole world is watching. The repeated word being used on French tv and in the press to describe what is happening is “chaos.”

Countries all over the world have offered aid and support. The Administration stalled for a week before beginning to accept those offers. It was announced in Brussels at the end of the first week that the American government had asked NATO in Europe and the European Union for emergency assistance in the form of blankets, first-aid kits, bottled water and MRE (meals ready to eat). Huh? As a friend of mine here said, “The richest country in the world needs to ask a country like Poland for food and blankets?”

Today is September 11th. It is raining. West of here, the south of France is experiencing torrential rains and catastrophic floods.

Basically, everything is under control; there have been serious floods here before. People were prepared. A large local rescue team took off for New Orleans yesterday; other French rescue teams have already left.


This afternoon I watched a documentary following members of the French Red Cross as they went house to house, ruin to ruin with the U.S. Army, National Guard and US Red Cross on a rescue mission in the former New Orleans.  They helped persuade an elderly hostile and disoriented woman to leave her home. The sheriff marked her house with an enormous X, under which he wrote OB. A French rescuer asked what it meant: “House checked and emptied; zero dead bodies.”  When questioned, the Frenchmen hesitantly answered, yes, it was hard to believe they were in America.  Four years to the day later, it is unbearably painful, almost impossible to believe my homeland is even less secure.  I may live in France, but that doesn’t make me any less American. If we don’t criticize, if we don’t point fingers and hold those responsible accountable, if we don’t learn from mistakes and change, the slow decline of the United States will only accelerate and as always, it will be the people, the individuals, especially those who are already the most vulnerable, who will suffer.


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