Edmond Wallace was at home on Belfast Street, New Orleans, Louisiana when Katrina hit the coast. AWhen the storm stopped I thought it was all over and went on by my cousin=s house.@ But then the water began to rise and Amy cousin reminded me about an old boat we had in the backyard.@ Mr. Wallace then got his grandmother and other elders out of the water and into the boat Abut it didn=t have a motor.@
Evoking images of Humphrey Bogart pulling the African Queen, Wallace tied a rope to the front and started to haul. AMost of them couldn=t walk. I=d put 12-13 of them in the boat at a time. Some of them didn=t want to leave. My partner had the back pushing and I had the front.@
In this way they traveled about six blocks to an elementary school further down on Belfast. But they had to keep ferrying back and forth. ASome of them didn=t want to go, we had to practically fight to get them out of their houses. They were scared to leave their homes.@
This went on for about four hours. After the last trip, somebody stole the boat. AI had to walk in the water to the bridge so that they could come rescue me.@
Wallace told Our Time Press by phone, AI learned a lot of stuff those couple of days. The experience taught me how short life is and to keep your faith in the Lord. Without Him, I wouldn=t be here today. Thank the Lord none of my family died.@ Speaking of the experience he said, AI don=t want to go through that again.@
It is stories like these, individual acts of bravery and kindness by men and women caught up in extraordinary circumstances, that we will be hearing more and more of as the New Orleans diaspora begin to tell their stories to friends and family who will pass them along to wondering listeners. But for now, let us talk about acts of God, the inactions of men and the Acompassion@ of our president and his men in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
To start with, we can point to the many studies of the unique characteristics of below-sea-level New Orleans and computer simulations of the effects of a Category 4 hurricane and ask where was the preparedness. These studies laid out in detail what would happen, but like the briefing the president had on August 6, 2001, entitled ABin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States,@ the studies did not say precisely when, where and how, so perhaps this managerial talent concluded that there was no point in taking precautions.
We can point to the National Weather Service=s graphic warning and briefing of FEMA heads and the president the day before the storm struck, and say that certainly answered the questions of when, where and how, but perhaps President Bush and the people he appointed figured weather people make you carry an umbrella and then it doesn=t rain. They=ll say, it was an honest lapse and a mistake to be learned from.
At most, they will claim that only mind-boggling incompetence is at fault here and to suggest otherwise would be unfair. The problem with that is the continuous mantra we are fed about how the president only appoints on merit, that only the best and the brightest need apply. And now when things go blazingly wrong, they sound suspiciously like the corporate heads of Enron or Worldcom, former AMasters of the Universe,@ who when wrongdoing is discovered, revert to a >I=m just a forgetful bumbler@ defense.
Perhaps to get closer to the truth we should listen to Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, who said on Meet the Press, AWe had Wal-Mart deliver three trucks of water, trailer trucks of water. FEMA turned them back. They said we didn=t need them. This was a week ago. FEMA–we had 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel on a Coast Guard vessel docked in my parish. AThe Coast Guard said, >Come get the fuel right away.= When we got there with our trucks, they got the word. AFEMA says don=t give you the fuel.= Yesterday–yesterdayCFEMA comes in and cuts all of our emergency communication lines. They cut them without notice.@ This suggests that FEMA deliberately obstructed aid, but of course too many people have died, too many have suffered to suggest that the powers-that-be, knew better, that they might have let the aftermath of the storm happen.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency Chief, Michael Brown, who got his job because merit was no consideration, has been soundly slapped on the wrist and some people will say that his embarrassment and recent resignation is punishment enough for the death and suffering his ineptness, if it was that, has caused.
What has been obvious to the world is that the overwhelming majority of those killed and left behind were poor and Black, exposing the institutional racism usually hidden from view by a complicit major media. A media that demonstrated its matter-of-fact-racism by saying that whites carrying bags in the street had been looking for food, and Blacks doing the same were looters. They reiterate that when the Founding Fathers wrote that Aall men are created equal@ they were not speaking of their slaves. And as far as the Founding Fathers would have been concerned, the evacuation went perfectly as planned, at least for the people they were speaking about.
Some may darkly wonder if they see the soul of the slaveholder at work rather than mere Ainsensitivity.@ That a window into their hearts is opened by comments such as those of Barbara Bush, who, while touring relief centers in Houston and speaking of the people who had survived with only the clothes on their backs said, Aso many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway,@ and here it=s reported she chuckles slightly, Athis is working very well for them.@ We want to love her because she has that white hair and all, but she really showed her kind that day. The same kind that felt they did Africans a favor by tearing them from their home continent and bringing them to what they called Acivilization@ here in the Americas.
The only clear and decisive thinking was demonstrated by how quickly Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney=s old company, was brought in to help rebuild the lost city. Just as they have helped so immensely in both the destruction and rebuilding of Iraq. The cynical might wonder if there is any suffering these companies can=t use to make a quick billion and questions need to be asked as to how is it that companies like Halliburton and Bechtel seem to always be in the right place at the right time to profit from what are kindly labeled Amistakes@ or Astupidity@ or seeming misjudgments as in the futile search for weapons of mass destruction or levees that weren=t reinforced.
Now that virtually all the Black folks have been washed away and dispersed throughout the country, the city of New Orleans is going to be rebuilt. As Republican Representative Richard Baker of Louisiana put it, AWe finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn=t do it, but God did.@ It=s comments like these that convinces many doubters that the New Orleans of the future is going to be a whiter place, with just enough Black people to dance Mardi Gras, perform in nightclubs and give white folks a comfortable tourist experience B a theme park, a safari, where tourists can sit on the veranda and watch the wildlife go by.
As the investigations go forward and the rebuilding begins, it will be up to activists, buttressed by people of good will across the country, to impress upon the power brokers of the city that they must send out the call for all those displaced to come back and join together in decision-making on the rebuilding of New Orleans. ACome back,@ they should call to Edmund Wallace and his partner. AThere are jobs and opportunities waiting for you. Come back and share in the billions that will be spent on construction and infrastructure. Come back to Belfast Avenue. We want you back in your home, safe and sound and bring your grandmother too. Come back, we need the vibrancy and creativity of the African experience that gave the soul to New Orleans.@
But watching and waiting to hear these words and hope they are turned into action is not going to be good enough. These people are called power brokers and former slave Frederick Douglass laid down the iron law in dealing with them when he said, APower concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.@ More than that, the aftermath of Katrina demonstrates how close we are to that time and how we cannot just make demands of the powerful, we must move to take the power and make demands of ourselves.