Thank God the situation in New Orleans is finally under firm control.
Obviously, I’m not referring to the physical management of the city, that is still pretty fucked up.
But the news management side of things has improved markedly.
For most of last week we in the UK were treated to the sight of British foreign correspondents, hardened by careers spent in third world disaster zones, standing knee deep in polluted water, surrounded by rubble and clearly shocked by the things they had seen.
It was quite a peculiar and unique experience. Disbelief was the strongest emotion coming across much of the time. They just couldn’t believe they were reporting on human misery on such a colossal scale, days after disaster had struck and with absolutely no signs of aid or relief. And all this was taking place in America. For a brief while, even kiss-ass US news presenters were reacting in an equally shocked way.
But those dark days are past. Essential supplies such as food, water and effective public relations skills are finally making their way into the heart of the devastated city.
The disaster story has stabilised now and the scenes of absolute misery are already being treated as history and we are being pounded with images of trucks driving up and down New Orlean’s waterlogged streets and heavily armed soldiers hugging black people.
Slightly off-message stories can still be found though but you have to work harder to find them. Personal favourites include
- The story that the evacuation of the Superdome was delayed on Friday so that guests at the Hyatt Regency hotel could be taken out along with their luggage
- The story that survivors had their meals whisked away from them so that Laura Bush could bring them comfort
- The story that film of a helicopter patching a levee breach with sandbags was just staged to coincide with George Bush’s visit
- The news that disaster survivors were to be pounded with microwaves if they didn’t stay in line
- The unedited interview given my New Orleans mayor Nagin on a local radio station. Sure he’s covering his arse but he had a lot more to say than that
- The spectacularly inappropriate launch of US National Preparedness Month. I just love the graphic they’ve put at the top of the page so very, very much
- The story of an 18-year-old kid who ‘looted’ an abandoned bus and delivered 100 survivors to the Houston Astrodome before any of the ‘official’ buses had arrived. Apparently, he wasn't all that welcome
The frenzied reporting of looting was really something to behold. The media went into a lather about it. Senior politicians announced that battle hardened troops were being sent in with shoot to kill orders to prevent it. The battered survivors of New Orleans were to be treated to a demonstration of martial law, Baghdad style.
Yup, tens of thousands of people wilting and dying and politicians were worried about some of them stealing some potato chips. There’s no doubt that some of them were taking training shoes and TVs as well but, come on, let’s get real here what were they going to do with them? Was it really worth diverting resources away from rescue operations for the sake of some mass produced plastic crap? The fact that looting even appeared in the media and the politicians’ radar shows what fucked up priorities those people have.
The more cynical observer might conclude that tales of looting and mayhem were played-up to serve as an excuse for and distraction from the fucked-up relief operation. And this is the mother of all fuck-ups. Even at this stage it is clear that so very many things went wrong…
- the levees were inadequately maintained
- no provision was made to evacuate people without access to private transport
- no viable contingency plan existed for the aftermath of a flood of New Orleans
Not only have Americans and the entire World been treated to a rare sight of the sheer size of the American underclass, they’re also going to have to come to terms with the astonishing incompetency of the people responsible for US domestic security – at all levels. If I was living in California right now I’d be more than a little nervous about the prospects of personal survival when the Big One eventually hits that part of the world.
Years ago, I met an seasoned traveller who told me that there were three cities in America that stood out from all the others by virtue of the uniqueness of their culture – San Franciso, Santa Fe and New Orleans. Having visited all three now I can see where he was coming from and New Orleans is at the top of my own personal list. My first visit to New Orleans was my entree to The Deep South and I’ve been fascinated by the Southern States ever since. This isn’t the place to enthuse about what New Orleans was but it was unique and those discarded people we saw scattered around the convention centre and Superdome were an integral part of that uniqueness. Not that you'd realise from the way they have been treated.
One thing we can be sure of, the New Orleans many of us loved is dead and gone. Partly because it will take generations for the memory of what happened on its streets to fade but also because there is no way it will ever be restored to its former seedy glory. A city like New Orleans had character because it grew organically, over centuries. The New New Orleans will be an ugly, soulless heap of casinos, malls and chain stores. Even if those people evacuated this week could ever bring themselves to return, their homes will be long gone and whatever is put in their place won’t be for the likes of them. New Orleans will become a tacky replica of itself and just like every other sanitised, corporate-conceived vacation resort in Amerika
It really is no exaggeration to say that we’ve seen a city, along with thousands of its poorest residents, die this last week and it isn’t coming back.