The first week after Katrina was over, and for some strange reason it felt like a weekend. I hadn't worked in over a week, and wouldn't for another 3 months, but this weekend nonetheless had the feeling of respite. The water was going down. New Orleans was finally evacuating in an orderly manner. No more of the torture of seeing looting and violence and federal indifference and death in my own hometown. Saturday was the end of the total meltdown.
All the worst things anyone ever thought or felt about the Crescent City had played out on the national stage like a crude reality TV show. We were racist. We were violent. Corrupt. Ignorant. All these things were being spoken in broad daylight, by politicians, pundits, and even ministers. We were to blame for what had happened.
Of course we were. We used to pray for Katrina to rain down upon us every week in church. Naturally we were more racist than any other city in America, completely apart from the pristine harmony everywhere else. It went without saying that our penny-ante politicians were more crooked than the freshly washed, honest faces that populated Washington.
New Orleans was never perfect. But vast destruction and round criticism is a lot of punishment to take in one week for the sin of imperfection. I like New Orleans in no small part because it is imperfect. In New Orleans we knew our politicians were corrupt and large parts of our city were poor. We did not pretend. Unlike New York, which had to overcome the shock that it was not invincible after 9/11, New Orleans was never under the illusion that we were the perfect society. We knew our city was barely holding together long before the storm.
There is a strange joy in that, one that most Americans will never understand. America has an obsession with being Number One in all things, an obsession that just does not apply in the Big Easy. We believe do not have to be Number One to be happy. So what if our roads have potholes. So what if we are not rich. So what if thousands of people lived in shacks in the Ninth Ward and were happy that way. As the famous Miles Davis jazz tune goes, So What, So What.
This is not to excuse the public school system, which was so bad as to be repugnant. Or the crime rate, which no responsible city should ever have tolerated. High crime areas in New Orleans needed the National Guard long before Katrina. The schools probably could have used the Guard too, come to think of it. Nonetheless, all of these faults are imperfections, human imperfections, and few things irritate me more than people who fret because the world is not perfect. So what? If New Orleanians had been richer and more responsible, if there had been only 10,000 people at the Convention Center instead of 20,000, or 5,000, or even only 500, that still would not excuse the government from getting them out.
It is not fair to blame people you were too lazy to save because they put themselves in the position of having to be saved. Their fault is their own, but your fault, your laziness, is your own also. Of all the faults of that great city of New Orleans, the one you will not find is the fault of judgment. It is a city where the individual is free to be anything, no matter how eccentric, even if that choice is to be nothing. But in human calculations, even a person who is financially worth nothing is still morally worth something.
But on Saturday the change in fortune finally pushed all that aside, and gave us the weekend to rest a moment. Though the rescue process was still going on, there was the sense that it was coming to an end, and the cleanup process was beginning. The levee breaches were filling up with sandbags at long last. I-10 was laden with supply trucks going in and buses with evacuees going out. These were images we should have been seeing on Tuesday, but that did not make them an unwelcome sight on Saturday.
In Baton Rouge, the huge triage center at Pete Maravich Assembly Center was winding down as the evacuees were slowly being forwarded to more permanent facilities.
Evacuees. This was the word for us, as the original term refugees was rejected. Eventually I would hear that the media agreed to drop the word refugee because a refugee is someone who flees one country to another, while an evacuee is someone who flees within his own country.
Sounds like lawyer talk to me. The real reason for the change was the objection of Katrina victims. Many felt the word refugee had racist overtones, and was derisive. I was never troubled with the term refugee; after all, the common definition of a refugee is simply someone who seeks refuge. That would be me.
I think the people affected by Katrina should have accepted the refugee label. The real objection to refugee was a cultural one — refugees are boat people fleeing Vietnam or Tutsis desperately scrambling from genocidal soldiers in Rawanda. Refugee means poor. It means desperate. It means forgotten. It means foreign.
Katrina victims might have done better to see themselves as humans rather than Americans. There is something uppity about calling thousands fleeing the Indonesian coast from the tsunami refugees but refusing to apply the term to ourselves. Maybe if we saw ourselves as refugees we would see our kinship with people suffering all over the globe. We wouldn't look upon the next international disaster with the same indifference. As it was, it seemed some people took a serious national disaster as an opportunity to rëenforce our sense of superiority over the people of the third world, and missed the chance to emphasize the ways we share the same fate.
The use of the word refugee would have made another point. One of the indelible impressions of Katrina was the sense of abandonment that was broadcast across the world. Person after person who arrived in New Orleans to help came away with the same impression: This is America? We expect such things in Haiti or Bangladesh or Ethiopia, but not here. Here people do not die by the hundreds or thousands because they do not have water. Here people do not scramble to their rooftops to escape rising water and then wait four days for someone to notice them. Here nursing home patients do not drown alone, abandoned in their own beds.
Maybe if we accepted that there were refugees within our own borders we could better come to terms with the failings of our own country. Americans have a strong sense of national invincibility and perfection, and this perception does not always serve us well. If 9/11 teaches that we are not invincible, Katrina teaches that we are not perfect either. If we have not learned that much from this disaster, we are not capable of learning anything else ever again.
New Orleanians are less susceptible to the illusion that they live in a perfect place than most of America. They know their town is slightly run down and that their social system of extended families is antiquated. They know they are poor, and they no there are cleaner, fresher, more forward places to be. They know this and choose to live in imperfection because the drive for perfect does not suit them. This frees them to live a more relaxed life, and to appreciate the life there more because they know how perishable it is. I have lived in places that are cleaner and better run. I have never lived in a place where the natives were so happy to be there. People in New Orleans remark all the time that they would never consider living anywhere else. There is a perfection in this love of imperfection, and that is a lesson a refugee understands more readily than an evacuee.
Translation: An evacuee flees a perfect place; a refugee flees an imperfect one.
So many emotions shook this nation after the Katrina disaster, but the most disappointing reaction was the shrug of indifference. Many people both publicly and privately expressed concern that the city should be rebuilt at all. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert famously said that there may be no sense in rebuilding a city that is below sea level, and he was hardly alone. I recall visiting the America Online website in November, dropping in on a vigorous debate over whether New Orleans had already received too much money. Three months after Katrina, three months after 300,000 people had lost their homes, and people were already griping about being having to the pay bill for the cleanup. Three months. My preschool-aged children have a longer attention span.
I wonder if such people ever considered New Orleans a part of the United States in the first place. I have been a doctor now for nine years, and I have yet to hear a patient with gangrene of the foot say to me, "You mean I have to get my toe amputated? Great! I hardly ever use it, and now I won't have to cut my toenail any more!" No, humans perceive their bodies as an organic whole, and any loss, even if practically insignificant, is considered a serious insult. I have seen patients cry over the loss of a toe. Maybe New Orleans is no more important to America than a pinkie toe, but would you cut your pinkie toe off if you broke it? Wouldn't you think someone who did is a little bit strange?
In the same way, I could not help but feel that any expression that the city should not be brought back was the same as saying the city had no value in the first place. It was not really part of America. It was something we can afford to lose, maybe even something we would be better off without.
There is something typically American about the concept of the disposable city. Cities are not incubators of culture, homes of communities and families who live and build their lives with attachment to a place. It is a place of convenience, a business center that should be exploited as long as it is useful, and then unceremoniously tossed when it outlives its value. Like an old person, I guess.
The real stopping point in that argument is that for me is New Orleans is America. I have lived other places, but I have spent most of my life in and around the Crescent City, and it is what I think of when I hear the word homeland. Every person, no matter how many places he may have lived at various times, has in his mind an unchanging image of a place he considers home. It may be a country town in Iowa, or Park Avenue, New York. But we all identify with a place we call our home. Imagine if someone told you your home didn't matter any more.
Intellectually I know America is more than New Orleans, but to say so is something like saying that motherhood is more than your own mother. Of course that is true, but your awareness of what a mother is comes almost entirely from your own mother, not from someone else's, and certainly not from the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of it.
If America throws New Orleans away, then America throws away my understanding of what America is. Without New Orleans, without a place to be from, I could go anywhere, and live in any country. If my home is gone, my homeland is just a land mass. That may seem a traitorous thought, but it is a fact. If your mother dies, are you going to celebrate Mother's Day
with someone else's mother?
The problem with the abandonment of New Orleans in the week after Katrina was that it was so immediate and reflexive. After the White House was briefed on the danger Katrina posed to the Gulf Coast, the President went on vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. The Vice President went fishing in Wyoming. The Secretary of State went to New York City to shop and attend Broadway plays. Michael Chertoff, who as Secretary for Homeland Security was directly responsible for the federal response, went to Atlanta for a conference on the West Nile Virus and stayed there through Wednesday. Chertoff was the individual most directly responsible for the federal relief effort. How can the elected class in a democracy be so indifferent to the needs of its citizens?
Many people did care, and cared deeply, but none of them seemed to be in a position of power. Eventually public outrage shamed everyone into responsibility, but there is no getting around the initial responses. I think a person's first response to a problem is a fair indicator of how he really feels. Everyone deserves a second chance, and no one is truly beyond forgiveness, but one can only judge people by what they do, and what the leadership of this country did is in plain sight.
It will take more than a sense of public shame to keep Katrina from ever happening again. In pondering this truth, I am reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament, which I will summarize here. A man was robbed and left for dead on the side of a road. In succession, three men traveling on the same road came upon the man: a priest, a Levite (a member of the sacred religious tribe of Israel), and a Samaritan. The priest and the Levite both walked by without doing anything. The Samaritan took pity on the dying man and rescued him, nursing him back to heath.
A lot of people think the Good Samaritan story is about human kindness. They are mistaken. The parable of the Good Samaritan is about the two men who passed the dying man and did nothing for him. The Priest and the Levite were both learned men dedicated to God and the Law. They were supposed to stop, but they didn't. The person who stopped, the Samaritan, was the person who was not supposed to help. To an ancient Jew, a Samaritan was member of a group that had broken off from Israel and no longer practiced Judism. A Samaritan was an apostate.
More than anything, the Good Samaritan parable emphasizes the timeliness of compassion. If we were to be so blasphemous as to rewrite the Gospel of Luke, we could imagine a version of the story in which the priest stops halfway home in guilt, and decides to go back. When he gets back to the place where the beaten man was, he is gone! The Samaritan has already been there and taken the dying man away. Even though the priest may have had a pang of regret, he does not get credit for it.
This is the way opportunities for compassion present themselves in life. We see a suffering person, and we react. We feel great compassion, or we feel concern only for ourselves. We reach out instinctively; or we think how we are late for work, that the person in need may be a con-artist, or that the dying person deserves what is happening to them. We react, almost immediately, one way or another.
We either ask what we can do to help, or we ask why a city below sea level should be rebuilt. Yes, we can backtrack. We can say we didn't exactly mean what we originally said; we can belatedly pitch in. The problem is that belatedly does not offer the same redemption. The original response is the real response — it is the inner self speaking out. Like the priest in our rewritten version of the Good Samaritan, even if we feel guilty and go back, the time to save is gone.
There are no more people standing on rooftops. The time to do the right thing in a timely manner is now past.
Redemption lies ahead. There will be another Katrina, though I pray it will not be in New Orleans, at least not in my lifetime. The chance for our leaders, and for us, to act, to do the right thing, lies ahead. Somewhere, around the bend in the road, sometime in the future, another dying man lies. Sometime in the future, our nation will be tested again.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,Walt Whitman.
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.
Now is the time for regrets. Soon comes the time for amends. Keep looking for the next opportunity, and pray your role is to be the Samaritan and not the dying man.