A long and rambling post about Katrina, our president, and the country's need to occasionally vomit

Sorry to make this blog Katrina Central, but frankly it's hard these days to think about much else. My family's lived through a few hurricanes, but I've never seen anything quite so bad as the images pouring out of New Orleans.

My parents lost their house last fall after Hurricane Ivan hit the Florida panhandle, and I mean lost their house in the literal sense. In the "where the hell did our house go? Oh, wait, I think I see part of the roof out there in the Sound" sense. And yet they have insurance, and another place to live, and so, sure, it sucks, but they're not out on the street. They're not being shuffled from shelter to shelter, they're not wading through floodwaters looking for something to eat. They'll rebuild, and life will go on.

In any storm, no matter how dire the warnings, there are people who decide to stick around and "ride it out." When my family lived in Charleston, we had one such neighbor, a retired Army General who decided he was going to "ride it out" through Hugo. Later, he told us that being in his house during that storm was the scariest thing he'd ever experienced. And this was a man who was a veteran of two foreign wars. In New Orleans, there were no doubt a few people (mostly men, because women are smarter than us, and less filled up with bravado) who refused to leave because they thought the prognosticators were overreacting. Who thought they could "ride it out." But the majority of people who were stranded in the city were stranded because they had no way to get out. Most of them, I imagine, would have loved nothing more than hopping into their Volvos with a cooler full of sodas and sandwiches and high-tailin' it to a hotel in east Texas. Except, of course, for the small problem of not having Volvos, or sandwiches, or enough money to pay for a hotel room.

And so they were stuck. Are stuck. And the rest of us are inundated with these terrible images on the television, and in the daily newspapers, images that sometimes look like artists' renderings of gristly science fiction novels. And it highlights for many of us, in a very real and tangible way, the huge economic divide in our country. How differently the poor fare when nature attacks. So then when George Bush Jr. goes onto the television and promises us that Trent Lott will be able to rebuild his house, God willing ... well, some people are understandably upset. Some people think maybe, just maybe, our president is out of touch with a great many of the people who live in his country.

If you ask me, that one statement was perhaps the single most amazing Bushism of all. How in a few off-the-cuff words, our president managed to sum up much of the criticism that's been aimed at him these past few years, all the ways many of us think he's wrong-headed about the world. It was his I Am Not a Crook moment. His Dukakis Driving the Tank. His I Did Not Have Sexual Relations With That Woman.

Maybe some of the criticism of the administration on Katrina is unfair. Perhaps, if the last few years of our collective American history had been a little different, we wouldn't be so riled up. Shit happens, we'd say. It's a tragedy. What can you do, other than send money, and be patient, and pray, if you're so inclined? But there's been a mounting sense of frustration over so many things -- the economy, the seemingly neverending war in Iraq, the fear that our world is less safe now than it used to be, the feeling that our leaders in Washington live in a different universe than the one we inhabit. Maybe people couldn't always quite articulate their frustrations, except to say that they felt a growing sense of unease, of despair. A feeling that, perhaps for the first time in American history, our national narrative was turning in the wrong direction, that things were getting worse, rather than better.

And then Katrina hit. And we saw flooding that looked like the End Times, and people starving in shelters and dying in the streets and clinging to the very tops of their roofs for dear life, and something in the national zeitgeist just broke, I think. We could only be expected to take so much bad medicine before we finally spewed it up all over the streets and the sidewalks.

Maybe it's displaced anger, then, that we're all spewing now. A lot of built-up bile that's been waiting to get out, and Katrina was our ipecac. Maybe it's like dating a bad boyfriend for years, the kind who consistently lies to you, cheats on you, doesn't come home when he says he will. Then, one day, the basement floods, and you're left there by yourself trying to bail out the water with a bucket while your boyfriend is at work, or at the bar, and when he comes home you just want to punch him right in his smug little face.

I don't know if any of that is true. But I do know that people are angrier than I've seen them in a long time. On the news, on the Internet, on the streets. Maybe it will eventually subside. Or maybe it won't. At the very least, it's good to see some people channeling their anger into helping out the people of New Orleans. Sean Penn, who's been angry for so long I can't even remember the last time I saw him smile, was seen piloting a skiff through the city streets and pulling people to safety. Say what you will about politically vocal celebrities, but at least Mr. Penn's willing to put his money (and his time) where his mouth is.


TMC said...

Shame that Mike's well written post had to be littered with comment spam.

I don't have much to add, Mike. Good insight, good writing.

And, yes, it's pretty hypocritical of people to mock Sean Penn for his struggles while helping, because he's doing a hell of a lot more to help than most people are.

Mike said...

Excellent! I've been looking for a "top health products reviewed" site! I hope they have Viagra.

I think there's some way to delete spam comments, but I'm retarded and don't know what it is.

dave said...

Great post, Mike. In the initial wake of this, I was really suspicious about people who immediately wanted to blame Bush for all of this. I mean, it's a category 5 hurricane. Surely not anybody's fault at all.

I still don't think you can really blame Bush or the Republicans or the fact that the wetlands have shrunk, as much as I'd like to. But there are things that point to a general lack of understanding, a kind of mild culpability. Like this absolute joker Michael "Brownie" Brown, who seems to be just about as clever and sharp as that nickname. And who is, by the way, most definitely NOT doing a "hell of a job." And who apparently was fired from the Arabian Horse Association before becoming the head of FEMA. And who got his job primarily because he was somebody's college roomate. The more I read the more it seems like all of these decisions they've made -- homeland security, Iraq, etc -- have definitely played into it. And then there's the Kanye West angle, which, I have to admit, I kind of agree with.

I also love the fact that, after what is probably the most serious post ever placed on this blog, we just got our first ever spam comment (see above, really compelling response from "the cholesterol guru"). Nothing like a little spam to make you feel all goofy and stupid again.

aaron said...

At least Sean Penn has his personal photographer with him...

Look, blame Bush all you want. But first responders in times of crisis come at the local and state levels. Nagin told people to go to the Superdome and the Convention Center but didn't provide any supplies there. To make matters worse, the Louisiana state Dept. of Homeland Security did not let the Red Cross into the city, because they believed it would encoourage people to stay.

But, no, no blame should be meted out to the local gov't of New Orleans.

And FEMA does not have its act together, that is true. But, apparently, it never has.

And read this tough but fair article on federalism and its limits.

Amidst all this fingerpointing and blame, in which I am sure there will be plenty to go around, let's hope that this report remains true as rescue operations proceed:

dave said...

Good comments, Aaron. I was waiting for you to weigh in on this one.

My main gripe is that these guys running FEMA just have no qualifications whatsoever. The rest needs to be argued by people who are smarter and more informed than me, although I do think there's a good argument to be made that pulling all the cash money into anti-terrorism (3 and out 4 dollars, is the figure I keep hearing), doesn't make a lot of sense, at least in hindsight.

Anyway, these appointees are just a bunch of cronies who really seem profoundly incapable of handling, well, just about anything. Here are their bios, courtesy of Yahoo:

Director Michael D. Brown: The Oklahoma native, 50, was hired to the agency after a rocky tenure as commissioner of a horse sporting group by former FEMA director Joe M. Allbaugh, the 2000 Bush campaign manager and a college friend of Brown's.

Chief of Staff Patrick J. Rhode: a former television reporter who came to Washington as advance deputy director for Bush's Austin-based 2000 campaign and then the White House.

Deputy Chief of Staff Brooks D. Altshuler: Altshuler is a former presidential advance man. His predecessor, Scott Morris, was a media strategist for Bush with the Austin firm Maverick Media.

So we have a guy who couldn't run the Arabian Horse Association properly, a TV reporter, and an "advance man" running FEMA. Surprised that they couldn't exactly handle what happened last week?

This isn't even a partisan argument, because as I understand it Clinton's original nominee for that post was just as (un)qualified as the Brown. Actually, old "doin' a hell of a job Brownie" just got sent home a few minutes ago, so maybe the Bush team is actually watching and reading the news these days.

Anyway, I have a personal ax to grind on this account, having worked in the federal government, and fairly closely with a total jackass who was running a very well-respected agency and had literally no credentials.

This whole process of appointing cronies to these positions of real power, where their combination of arrogance and incompetence can lead to real problems for real people, is seriously fucked.

What you wind up with is, every four or eight years (more than likely four, because these cronies tend to bounce from agency to agency), somebody who has no experience and no credentials is gifted a job because they either went to school with somebody or helped on a campaign or their mommy and daddy gave a lot of money to the right guy. It's really legal bribery, and it's the system that leads to jokers like "doin' a hell of a job, Brownie" fucking up so badly that real working people are stranded on their roof for days.