Thursday, March 17, 2011

Revisiting Katrina

After graduating from college in the spring of 2005, I decided to join my best friend in Washington, DC, and try my hand in politics. This choice made sense at the time: I had a bachelor’s degree in political science, after all, and so the doors of Capitol Hill and hallowed think tanks would be opened wide for me. Or so I thought.

When I got there and started the job search, I got a reality check. Most positions required more experience than I had, and the ones for which I was qualified were largely unpaid internships on Capitol Hill. My resume and carefully crafted cover letters went out into the void, met with echoing silence.

Finally, with the help of my friend and her college’s employment postings, I applied for a position at a government consulting company. It seemed at the time that everyone I knew was either working at a government consulting company or on Capitol Hill (there was a small contingent at the US Patent an Trade Office, but that’s government too). I got the job and started work almost immediately on a massive project documenting the government response to Hurricane Katrina. The first day I came into work at a building less than a block from the White House, the other interns and I had an orientation on the project and then got to work at company laptops set up along a huge conference table in a dimly lit conference room. These were temporary digs, we were told.

We got right to work on data entry and analysis. The project was to create a massive, hour-by-hour, sometimes minute-by-minute timeline of Hurricane Katrina from a week or so before landfall until about a month after the disaster, detailing every FEMA/DHS/local and federal government action. How much water and food were trucked in, when states of emergency were declared, how many people were rescued, etc. I came to have such a detailed view of the disaster and its aftermath that I began to question the simplistic picture that the media had painted: a deluge of epic proportions, massive chaos, unimaginable squalor and cruelty at the Superdome, “refugees” fleeing the city, and people losing all sense of “civilized” behavior.

What we hadn’t heard at the time was news of massive failures by the local, state, and federal government, a slow and inefficient emergency response, a lack of appropriate action by the president to recognize the extend of the damage, racism and prejudice seen at all levels, and myriad other problems with the people and agencies that should have had things under control.

Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun details some of these failures through the eyes of the title character, a Syrian American man who stayed behind for the storm, the flood, and the aftermath. What Zeitoun endured was partly the result of the chaos that Katrina caused, but mostly came from a special kind of prejudice common in the US since 9/11: equating a Muslim with a terrorist.

Warning to the reader: the following paragraphs contain spoilers!

I want to encourage everyone I know to read Zeitoun, both to learn about Katrina and the aftermath, and to see how terrible human rights infringements can happen when disaster strikes and chaos and fear take over. The government at all levels created an aggressively military response to a humanitarian disaster. Two days after the hurricane hit New Orleans, prisoners from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, LA were brought into New Orleans to build an outdoor prison complex at the New Orleans Greyhound station. Designed to hold people arrested after the storm as well as inmates from local prisons, this temporary facility housed Zeitoun for several days and reminded him of pictures he’d seen from Guantanamo Bay. As Eggers points out, prison officials were building an outdoor prison complex as thousands of New Orleans residents were stranded on roofs and in attics in dire need of food, water, rescue.

The Abrams Report on NBC aired a story on Camp Greyhound, as the temporary prison was called, on September 8, 2005, 11 days after the hurricane hit New Orleans. In the story, Abrams interviews an official from the LA State Penitentiary who shows him around the complex where Zeitoun was being held that very day. The NBC footage shows large chain link cages with a portable toilet and nothing else. No bed, blankets, chairs, sink, nothing. The official admits that many of the people being held at Camp Greyhound were in jail for speeding tickets and other minor infractions. Until officials could retrieve the records from an inundated building downtown, the official said, these people would be detained here and soon transferred to a maximum security prison, the place where Zeitoun spent almost three weeks without being allowed to contact his family and let them know he was still alive.

What most people remember from Katrina are the media reports of dead bodies everywhere, looting, shooting, and utter mayhem in the Crescent city. I do hope that Zeitoun and other books, articles, documentaries, music, etc. will teach them otherwise, but of course it’s already been 6 years since the hurricane, and for most people memories of Katrina have faded.

If Katrina taught us anything, it’s that our government is not infallible. Even in the richest nation on earth, this model democracy, terrible injustices are perpetrated, citizens are wrongly accused, gross negligence is allowed by the government. We must always watch what happens, look out for our neighbors, for everyone around us. We’ve got to hold our government accountable, and ask why the response to Hurricane Katrina and other disasters was not more successful. We must ask why the federal emergency management agency, FEMA, is now under the Department of Homeland Security umbrella, why disaster assistance is now rolled up into antiterrorism initiatives. My time in Washington taught me to question what our government does, to look for the facts, and not to be immediately convinced by a seemingly rational explanation of why we should give up certain basic rights in emergencies or after an attack.

Perhaps our government has learned its lesson after Katrina--even President Bush admitted that he had regrets about the government response. What Zeitoun’s story and many other reports show us, however, is that we must help to make sure nothing like this happens again. We must watch, and be aware, and stand up for what is right.