News & Views » Columns

This disaster is far from over

Yes, this is one more column about Katrina.
By now some of you are probably starting to get tired of hearing about the disaster, although you might not want to admit it out loud for fear of sounding cold and uncaring. After all, when was the last time you lost everything you owned in a flood? All those images of desperately poor people struggling to survive in desperate circumstances, dead bodies floating in the water, houses swept away, families torn apart. How can anyone witness all that devastation and not feel torn themselves?

At least for the first few weeks or so. After that, it becomes increasingly difficult to click on the TV and continue to see how bad things still are on the Gulf Coast, or to hear more stories about those who may never recover. It’s called the saturation level. Whenever a huge story like this one hits, the media covers it to death, which is not necessarily a bad thing. What Katrina did to people’s lives — and the pathetic government response to that disaster — needed every single bit of attention the media could spare.

But this was not the O.J. Simpson trial. Or the Michael Jackson trial. It seems a majority of the viewing public — that’s us — possesses a never-ending appetite for some types of stories, the kinds of stories involving perverse, even murderous, celebrity behavior. These stories unfold like cheap, guilty pleasure novels, with fascinating characters and lots of “ooooh” and “ahhh” moments. But most importantly, these types of stories are so bizarre that they keep us all at a safe distance — close enough for a good peek at the sleaze, but far enough away so it doesn’t spill on our clothes.

Let’s face it; we like to watch. Those cheap sleazy novels sell so well because the authors — and the publishing houses — know all too well how much we like to slow down on the highway and see if any bodies were torn up in that accident. They know how much we like to put our ear against the wall of our tiny, cramped apartment late at night when we hear the neighbors punishing the bedsprings next door. They know how much we like to be there without actually being there.

We like to watch when it comes to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina as well, but our patience for that kind of story starts wearing thin much, much sooner. After a while we start wanting to change the channel from CNN and watch a good, wholesome episode of Lost. And after a while longer, even more committed news organizations like CNN start to back away from the story and focus their cameras elsewhere. Watching floodwaters recede and people slowly trying to put what’s left of their lives back together isn’t as exciting as watching the late Johnnie Cochran work a jury, and it’s not anywhere near as amusing as watching pop superstar Michael Jackson show up at a courtroom in his pajamas.

Quite frankly, one day the thrill is going to be gone.

But, quite frankly, we can’t allow ourselves to turn away from this story. We in the media have to keep a focus on this thing until the end — and the end has not yet come. Why? Because everyone likes to make grandiose statements and promises of what will be done to help the poor and suffering so long as the cameras are rolling.

President George W. Bush, his poll numbers dropping like a clay pigeon shot out of the sky, promises billions of dollars in aid and even suggests how important it is to create more minority-owned businesses in New Orleans. This was part of Bush’s political strategy to cover his ass for letting black working-class and not-working-class folks drown in floodwater. Bush made these promises on national TV. All sorts of promises have been made on national TV. But once the cameras leave town and/or the next big story breaks, we may never find out what really went down, the promises versus the reality of it, until it’s too late to do anything but shake our heads.

Consider the magnitude of what’s actually needed just in New Orleans alone. I know you’ve heard it all before, but just think about it a little more. Yes, the pumps are up and running now, at least many of them are, and, yes, it seems that the earlier dire predictions of 10,000 lives lost due to the hurricane were greatly exaggerated. But what was not exaggerated was the extreme level of poverty in largely black New Orleans. Many of these folks have been dirt-poor for generations and, as one of my Metro Times colleagues pointed out last week, much of America was introduced for the first time to a group of people who don’t have bank accounts, don’t have phones, don’t have a lot of things that most of us take for granted. They lived in virtual shacks, but these shacks were their homes. And all of us know the importance of home.

There was initially some discussion about whether New Orleans was worth rebuilding because, after all, it is located below sea level and this kind of thing could happen again. Maybe it would be cheaper to just relocate folks and wave bye-bye. That idiotic line of thinking was drowned as the uproar tumbled in like a second wave brought on by Katrina. Now everyone is talking about how New Orleans will be rebuilt better than ever. Bush even said, in essence, that you just can’t imagine this country without New Orleans.

Here’s the problem, though. All those poor people who lived in New Orleans lived, well, like poor people live. Like I said, they didn’t have much. So as the rebuilding process moves along, and as the story fades from the headlines, the question of just how much better should these poor peoples’ lives be — especially at taxpayer expense — is sure to resurface. After all, if they were living in such dire circumstances before the hurricane, should taxpayers be expected to foot the bill to build them better, more stable homes? How much were their shacks worth anyway, and didn’t Barbara Bush say they should be grateful for whatever they get considering what they had to begin with?

See the problem? Let’s say the homes of the poor, which weren’t worth much of anything to begin with, are rebuilt to their original value and standard. How would that look — telling an already devastated group of people that this is all you deserve so shut up and be happy? On the other hand, those who lost middle-class homes and better won’t be expecting to get a nicer crib out of the deal, and some of them will be lucky if they get enough from their insurance companies to get half the house they had before. So you know somebody will eventually scream, “Why should they get better housing? What have they ever done for this economy? Didn’t you see how they looted? Do people like this deserve to be rewarded for that type of behavior?”

Keep those cameras rolling. The aftermath of Katrina hasn’t even begun to get ugly.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

comment