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The Gross National Debt

Thursday, August 03, 2006

[NOTE: I posted this over at Daily Kos in response to a challenge to get one Katrina diary a day on the recommended list as we come up to the anniversary of the storm - but I also posted here a lot during the storm's aftermath, so I'm reposting this here as well]

I turn today to take up wmtriallawyer's challenge to highlight the tragic events that unfolded almost a year ago as the realization of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina dawned on us.

That was quite a time for me personally.  luckydog's excellent recommended diary brought it all back to me, not that it's ever very far from my mind and my heart.  I don't live in the gulf region and I wasn't personally affected by Hurricane Katrina in terms of losing property or a loved one or even a friend.  But I was affected, however, in the way human beings are affected by the suffering of others.  Katrina really changed my life.

And that's what this diary is about.  Make the jump.  

Those of you who have been with us for at least the past year remember DarkSyde's excellent diaries in the days preceding the hurricane, warning of the potential destruction with scientifically ominous terminology.  Two days before the devastation, he posted this diary.  It was then that he fully had my attention, let me tell you.  I began to feel the sense of impending doom that was bearing down on a city I loved, a city that my husband I would visit to hear unarguably great music and to stroll and window shop and just be together.  Being musicians, New Orleans holds a special place for Mr. RenaRF and I.  The prospect of this killer storm bearing down this, our city of retreat, was too awful to contemplate.

I sat glued to CNN and MSNBC on the Sunday Katrina approached and the Monday when it made landfall, poised in awful anticipation for the reports coming out of the region.  Monday morning's reports were as expected - wind.  Rain.  People in shelters.  People sheltering in their homes.  Video clips of gray air filled with water and foliage being blown sideways.  All your regular storm coverage.

It was the assessment for which I waited: How bad had it been?  How much damage?  And, specific to New Orleans - Did the levees hold?  I was buoyed as Monday night's reports rolled out about the fate of New Orleans.  The eye had passed in such a way to avoid a direct hit on the city.  The windows in the Hilton were out and the Superdome's skin has sustained damage, but this was all damage that could be repaired.

New Orleans had dodged a bullet.

Allow me to digress a moment to provide a bit of context, because this is a personal diary, and one in which I'm going to attempt to articulate what is visceral and very difficult to put into words.

On the morning of 9/11, I was on my way into downtown DC for a meeting at the Treasury department.  For those of you who don't live in DC, the main Treasury department's building is right next to the White House.  In fact, there is a subterranean tunnel that connects the two (not that I've ever been in it).  I live in Northern Virginia and, except during HOV hours, I access the downtown portion of the city by taking Rt. 66 eastbound.  This brings me through McLean, then North Arlington, then Rosslyn.  As I was just coming through McLean, my husband called on my mobile.  He said that the weirdest thing had happened - as he was watching the Today show about coverage of a small plane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers, another plane flew into the other tower.  It hadn't dawned on me yet what was happening.  I had my meeting on my mind and rang off.  Close on the heels of that call, as I wended my way on the highway through Arlington, my friend and colleague called.  She said:

"Get out of the city.  There's a bomb at the State Department and the Capitol.  Something's happened at the White House - and a plane just hit the Pentagon.  They say we're under attack."

At that moment I was coming up on the exit for the Key Bridge, which takes you into the Georgetown section of DC.  I took her seriously and took the exit.  On the bridge headed to Georgetown, I could look to my right and see the dying flames and rising smoke that was the crippled Pentagon.

In that moment, 9/11 became very real and very personal to me.  I had a feeling like someone lifting a thick cobweb off of my brain - felt but not seen, the whispering relief of its almost non-existent weight being lifted was a physical feeling.  It was my body's reaction to the realization of what was ocurring and, with it, a sense that things would be forever changed.

Until Monday night, August 29th, I hadn't had that feeling since 9/11.  I was tuned into CNN's News Night with Aaron Brown, following the post-Katrina aftermath coverage.  I was pretty lighthearted - all reports were that the city had been spared.  Than this:

BROWN: It's been quite a -- we don't use this word lightly, but quite a dramatic and difficult night down there, hadn't it?

MESERVE: It's been horrible. As I left tonight, darkness, of course, had fallen. And you can hear people yelling for help. You can hear the dogs yelping, all of them stranded, all of them hoping someone will come.

My emphasis added.  When I read that over again, I start to cry.  I also remember experiencing that feeling again - that cobweb-lifting-from-brain moment of realization that things had inexorably changed.

It's a shame that I don't have an audio clip of that small interchange.  As I mentioned, at that point I was experiencing a sense of relief that Katrina hadn't caused the predicted devastation.  So I was doing what I do, which is many things at once.  CNN was on, but I wasn't especially paying attention to it.  I was on the computer, chatting with my husband, running laundry - typical home stuff.  But it was Meserve's tone that fully directed all my attention to the TV.  Her voice broke when she talked about the people yelling and the dogs yelping.  I'm familiar with Meserve - she's not an emotional reporter - but the raw emotion of what she was witnessing came through in her voice and in her desperate efforts to hold it together and report what she was hearing.  She continued:

[MESERVE] But for tonight, they've had to suspend the rescue efforts. It's just too hazardous for them to be out on the boats. There are electrical lines that are still alive. There are gas lines that are still spewing gas. There are cars that are submerged. There are other large objects. The boats can't operate. So they had to suspend operations and leave those people in the homes.

As we were driving back, we passed scores of boats, Fish and Wildlife boats that they brought in. They're flat bottomed. They've obviously going to put them in the water just as soon as they possibly can and go out and reach the people who are out there who desperately need help.

We watched them, some of them, come in. They were in horrible shape, some of them. We watched one woman whose leg had been severed. Mark Biello, one of our cameramen, went out in one of the boats to help shoot. He ended up being out for hours and told horrific tales. He saw bodies. He saw where -- he saw other, just unfathomable things. Dogs wrapped in electrical -- electrical lines who were still alive that were being electrocuted.

The police are having radio problems. At least they were earlier this evening. They didn't have enough boats. They put out an appeal to various police who had personal boats to bring them to the scene. But the problem was the people who had the boats couldn't get to the boats to bring them to the scene to go out and rescue the people.

People are out there tonight. One of the EMS workers told us that the water is driving, and I can tell you that when we came back into the city tonight, it certainly was higher here. Whether it's rising in that neighborhood as much as it has here, I don't know -- Aaron.

BROWN: Jeanne, let me walk you through a couple of things. Are they able -- are authorities able to, in any way, communicate with these people who are stranded and scared and hungry and cold and desperate?

MESERVE: They aren't tonight. When the boats were in the water, as the boats went around through the neighborhood, they yelled. And people yelled back. But Mark, when he came back, told me that -- that some of the people, they just couldn't get to. They just couldn't get to them. They couldn't maneuver the boats in there.

Because this had happened before in Hurricane Betsy, there were many people who kept axes in their homes and had them in the attic in preparation for this. Some people were able to use those axes and make holes in their roof and stick their head out or their body out or climb up completely. But many others clearly didn't have that. Most of the rescuers appeared to be carrying axes, and they were trying to hack them out as best they could to provide access and haul them out.

BROWN: I'm sorry. What...

MESERVE: There were also Coast Guard helicopters involved in it, Aaron, with the seat up (ph), flying overhead. It appears that when they saw someone on a rooftop, they were dropping flares, to try to signal the boats to get there.

BROWN: Is there any sense of -- that there's triage, that they're looking to see who needs help the worst? Or they're just -- they were just getting to whomever they could get to and get them out of there?

MESERVE: I had the distinct impression they were just getting to whoever they could get to. I talked to one fire captain who'd been out in his personal boat. He said he worked an area probably 10 square blocks. He'd rescued 75 people. He said in one instance there were something like 18 people in one house, some of them young. One, he said, appeared to be a newborn.

And he said other boats were working the same area at the same time, also picking up large numbers of people. And he doesn't believe they got all of them. And that's just one 10-block area. I don't know how big the area is. I haven't been able to see any footage from the air, but it appears to go on forever. It's hard for me to comprehend how many people might be out there and how many people's lives are in jeopardy or how many people may already be dead.

BROWN: It's -- it's -- just stay with me for a bit, OK? It's what is -- for everybody now, what's very difficult is there isn't what we refer to in the business as a wide shot. We can't get -- authorities can't get, we can't get, we can't give to those of you who are watching tonight that wide picture of what these scenes are like.

Can you -- what kind of neighborhoods are we talking about? Are these middle class neighborhoods? Are they -- the homes structurally sound? What are we talking about?

MESERVE: Well, the area where I was, and I don't know what the other neighborhoods are like, but this was a poor neighborhood. These were very humble homes. Most of them appeared to be only one story high with, then, some small attic space above them. These people are people of not much means. Some of them, I would guess, do not have cars and didn't have the option of driving away from here. Some of them, I would guess, did not have the money that would have bought them a hotel room.

BROWN: Yes.

Merserve, without really knowing it, foreshadowed all that we would learn in the days to follow.  That horrible knowledge that the poorest people had been the ones left behind.  That horrible knowledge that, even though such a scenario had been predicated and documented, there was no plan to save people.

As the days rolled out and the devastation became clearer, I would think every moment about the people who remained trapped in their attacks with the noxious water all around them.  It prompted me to write this diary, which was an actual letter I wrote to the President of the United States.  I essentially implored him to imagine himself in one of those attics and fucking do something to help these people.

I cried - a lot.  It took me a while to realize that I was crying for everything.  In the days immediately following the hurricane, I cried for the people who had died and were surely dying under the watchful eye of television news cameras.  I cried for the spirit of the people trapped in the Superdome and Convention Center.  I cried when I saw their faces and especially their eyes - from the very old to the young, their eyes told the story:  We are abandoned.  We are not important enough to be saved.  I cried because they felt that way, and I cried because they would never know that I was crying - for them.  I cried out of helplessness and a keen sense of outrage.  I cried along with each of you as we all realized that New Orleans would never again be the same.  I cried as I mourned the loss - ALL of the loss.

I still cry today over Hurricane Katrina, but it's become more removed from the people and the place itself and has moved more towards mourning the loss of something more personal.  When I saw the remnants of that plane jutting out f the Pentagon, I was naturally horrified.  But there was a stiff-upper-lippidness that also set in, a determination that terrorism and threats would not prevent me from working and driving and travelling and living my life.

With Katrina, though, I mourned the loss of something more fundamental - the loss of a sense of caring about human life.  I cared - each one of us here cared.  Most peple watching on their TVs cared.  A few of those who cared cared enough to actually go there and do what they could to help.  But the people and the institutions best poised to provide the greatest amount of relief and assistance didn't care enough about the things that mattered.  They didn't care about the clocks ticking over the heads of the living or about the death of the spirit of those whose joy of life was replaced by a bitter realization that they just didn't matter enough to be rescued and treated with dignity.  

They didn't care about these devastated people's right to some semblance of human dignity.

Those days following Katrina saw my innocense finally fall by the wayside and be replaced with a hard core of cynicism.  I lost a piece of myself in an odd way through those events.  It doesn't remotely compare with the loss of those whose homes were destroyed, whose loved ones were drowned, whose spirits were crushed... But in its own way, my loss remains very real.

It is an impotent rage.

I try to use it as a way to further spur myself to aciton, to change things, to become gentler and kinder and more caring especially for those who remain in harm's way in this country today.  Those people are legion - their categories too numerous to list and their peril too profound to articulate.

But mostly I just cry over Katrina.



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