It has been two years since Hurricane Katrina. Let’s replace "they" with "we" with "I"as we remember what happened there, and as we look for ways to help in the continuing recovery. As I looked back on what I was writing when the hurricane struck, here is what I found:
"While there are many material victims of this disaster, losing homes and things they cherished and worked hard for, the human victims of Hurricane Katrina are largely poor and black. They are the ones who could not escape. They are the ones who should have been provided for first, but weren’t.
They are the invisible people who clean our toilets when we go to New Orleans to eat beignets, listen to jazz, eat garlic-mashed potatoes, and hold conferences about new ways to do our jobs. They are the faceless bellhops and waitresses who have for years provided the infrastructure for New Orleans to thrive as a tourist Mecca, the steel beams on which the happy debauchery of Mardi Gras could stand. They are the poor, voiceless people of this nation, not the rich ones.
Many of them are the poor ones from whom we avert our eyes, the ones we avoid and hide in appropriate sections of town, and the ones we hide from, embarrassed by our own standing on their shoulders. There are no wealthy people in the Superdome; there are no wealthy people dead in wheelchairs outside the Convention Center, skin popping in the heat and water, no. They simply are not there. The storm wasn’t racist and classist, but we are (in addition, in the face of this situation, to being quite desperately inept). This situation points to a reality far wider than what is happening now in New Orleans; it is this larger and more complex issue that our nation must address after we have taken care of those displaced and dead and distraught people in the Gulf Coast.
Each human being asked to suffer the conditions of the Superdome and the Convention Center is a person with a mother and a father, children, likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams that aren’t different from my own, not really. They have a history, however, that is nothing like mine, and their history—like mine—figures into their reaction to this tragedy, these broken promises, this horror. They all deserve dignity and respect, even when they don’t behave in the way we would like for them to behave, even when they resort to looting and violence. It is easy to love and care for lovable people; it is harder to love and care for those who are unlovable. That is our challenge in times like these….
Responding well in situations that are not desperate is not much of a skill. It doesn’t take a lot to be civil when all of our basic needs are met, when we are having the equivalent of a nice tea party with white gloves and glossy pink lipstick expertly applied and eating cucumber sandwiches on white bread while giggling about Johnny Depp. No, that’s not the test of who we are. Instead, responding well in a situation of this gravity and magnitude is where we begin to separate the wheat from the chaff. And I realize after a day of blaming people that I’m not even passing my own test. I’ve spent the last day like one of those old ladies that Faulkner writes about, the ones he describes that sit on chairs too tall for their feet to reach the floor, my impotent little legs furiously kicking below me in the dust motes.
So here is my vow: I am not going to spend mental or physical energy blaming people for this unconscionable and undeniably incompetent response to this tragedy. No, not yet. No, to do that now does not honor those men and women and children who have yet to eat or drink, it does not honor those dead human beings with real lives and families who loved them and had to leave them floating in the floodwaters, a desperate and incomplete goodbye to the real and true and precious loves of their life. I cannot sit here with my cup of coffee and tasty scone and place blame on people who are desperately trying to help in the best way they can. No, I will save all that fury and helplessness and second-guessing for later. I will only offer constructive suggestions now until the last person is buried and the last person has been fed and showered and found. The more I ask authorities to respond to my allegations of blame, the less focused they are on the families still drowning by inches in their attics, and the more distance I can create between my own self and this tragedy.
We are all accountable for this."
Let us consider ourselves part of the solution: "The wave of horror I feel at the world’s pain has been revealed to me as a peculiar form of privilege; there is a sense of horror and a terrible sense of relief at the same time, if I am honest. I am not there, which allows me the luxury to have an intellectual response to this event. I must dig deeper into what it means to be connected to these people who are so affected; it is that intellectual response to tragedy that keeps us immune, that makes these tragedies all the more possible in the world. I manage my reaction to them by keeping them small tragedies, the size of my TV screen—I cannot allow that to happen and I must all at the same time. What am I doing about what’s happening in the