A Canadian email pal wrote today and asked me what I thought about what happened in New Orleans. In particular, she wondered if I thought it was a "race issue." Here are some of the thoughts I shared with her:
No, the difficulty getting rescue going in New Orleans was not a racial issue. A lot of the mistakes were made by the mayor, and he is black! The city is 67% black. The mayor wasn't properly schooled in what to do in this kind of emergency, and neither was the state governor. The federal government in the US does not govern the states, and in this situation the state's poor leadership resulted in people not getting help with the speed they could have.
Another problem was that no one has ever seen an emergency like this one. They had to create new methods to handle it, and it is going to add many pages to all the training manuals. Because the criminals who remained in the city--many of them released from flooding jails--were shooting at rescue workers and helicopters, many things normally done in rescue had to be delayed until they could be captured. No volunteer rescue workers could be allowed in, and normally the Salvation Army and Red Cross volunteers are the ones who actually take care of people once they have been plucked out of danger.
The difficulties were not the fault of George Bush. The blame game is foolish, and only interferes with getting help to the people and the city--several cities, and more than one state--that will need help for a long time.
It's so seldom that a disaster affects everyone in a city. Many of the people who did not leave New Orleans before the flooding--and there was a LOT of warning, several opportunities to leave--were the poorest, and had other problems, too. Certainly a lot of them had no transportation or money. Some were too ill or disabled to leave. Some were too poor to take pets with them if they left, and stayed for that reason. Many were so out of contact with the world that they had no idea what was happening. Some were mentally ill. You are probably aware that many homeless people are mentally ill, too. That is often why a person winds up homeless.
Nationally, more of the poor are white than black. But nationally a higher percentage of the population is white than black. In New Orleans, 2/3 of the population on all economic levels is black, so it stands to reason that they would have a lot of black people who are poor. The rescue workers on all levels, especially the Salvation Army and the many churches who are helping the survivors, are very experienced in helping poor people year-round. They did not hesitate to jump in and help, just as soon as they could get in.
New Orleans has to be made secure and rebuilt, because it is an essential port. That is a matter of national security, and there will be time for niceties of the federal government and the state and city figuring out how to work together. It's a shame that New Orleans doesn't have a City Manager as my city does. We elect a mayor, but our City Manager is carefully chosen by an application process, so that this person does know the technical aspects of running a city. Obviously the mayor of New Orleans does not.
Governors are elected as a "popularity contest," too, and the governor of Louisiana did not know what to do in the crisis. She failed to request help as she was supposed to do, and turned away help when it was offered. The Governor and Mayor were both apparently more concerned with their own images than with the safety of citizens. They gave contradictory orders for the running of the rescue operations. It was a real mess.
If we saw a disaster in Haiti or Jamaica and people needed rescue, we wouldn't be surprised that those people were black, because those countries have more black people than white people. New Orleans does, too. So what? People are people, and everyone rushed to help them.
Put a city underwater, cut the power and the communications off (including cell phones, since the towers were all offline), turn all the criminals loose and let them break into stores and steal guns, fill the water with human waste, dead bodies, snakes, alligators and other hazards--and see how fast anyone can get to everyone stranded in that mess.
The criminals included gangs, looters, and even people who came INTO the city when the levee broke, specifically for the purpose of stealing. They shot police, volunteers, and people who had lost their homes. They raped women and young girls.
Remember that police did not have communications, either, and everyone was trying to rescue people who had no food or water. That was so difficult that they were unable to take children in the same helicopter with their mother, so they got separated into different shelters. There were at least 150 children in that situation. The helicopter can't hold many people at a time, and they wanted to get the kids out, not leave them until there was room for a parent with them.
People have been desperate from the beginning to get in there and rescue the stranded animals, but rescuing humans had to come first, and the damn criminals delayed all rescues. I don't know what the government could have done about that any faster than they did, other than to immediately send in SWAT teams and Navy SEALS, and I think eventually that's exactly what had to be done.
No one anticipated the level of crime that happened. It hasn't happened in other American disasters. It was disgraceful. I doubt that particular problem will ever catch authorities unprepared again.
Another kind of criminal has been developing as we've had these disasters that bring lots of donations. After 9/11 there was a lot of misappropriation of the huge amounts of money donated to help the families. This time that problem is far worse than ever before, and getting worse by the day. You need to be very careful who you donate to, in order to know that your money is going to help people rather than into the pockets of criminals.
It's also sad that people in other destroyed areas may not get the help they need, because the media has been so focused on New Orleans. And as people rush to give donations to this disaster, they cut down their donations to other groups who depend on donations to carry on their work.
One thing that is going to be a huge problem as they get the water out of the city is that looters will be hitting homes as well as the businesses they have already been hitting. There is no way the police or anyone else can guard all the property. For one thing, they have to allow some access by people who live in the area. So property that survived the disaster so far may still be stolen or destroyed by looters. They've been having a lot of fires. It's, well, a disaster.
A couple of things I think will change as a result of this disaster. I think the staging procedures for disasters handled by our federal agencies will change. I think that many more individuals will be trained in running operations for various scenarios of disasters. I think that FEMA will be removed from Homeland Security and become an independent agency again.
I think this disaster made it abundantly clear that human lives will be lost if people are forced to separate from their pets to be rescued. They are going to have to rescue the pets, too, if the person asks them to.
Some pet owners don't care, and maybe those pets will need to be left for later. But they have to stop telling people they can't keep their pets with them if they evacuate. All the rescue groups, including the volunteer agencies, are going to have to figure out how to cope with rescue pets. Some people will die rather than leave them, and that must stop. We can do better, and we will.
At the disaster here in Oklahoma City in 1995, local Red Cross authorities altered the dog policy and brought volunteer handlers with their therapy dogs on the scene to work with the waiting families and the resting rescue workers. That was the first time, I believe, that the Red Cross let dogs in. Then therapy dogs served extensively after 9/11 in New York City and also with the people in emotional need associated with the Pentagon crash the same day.
In contrast, when we've had destruction of homes from tornadoes, hurricanes and floods, people need to know that their own dogs are safe. Therapy dogs could be upsetting to them, by reminding them of what happened to their own dogs. In order to take care of someone whose pet is part of their family, we need to take care of the pet, too. I think that is the kind of care we will be seeing in future disasters.
A lot of people are saying there is no way to handle the pets in shelters with the humans, that dogs will bite people, bother people, fight with each other, scare the cats, etc. I used to think that, too. But now I firmly believe it can all be worked out. One possibility would be to put the pet area next door to the people area, and make room in it for people who can't bear separation from our pets.
People comfortable in the people area with the ability to go next door and visit their pets anytime could do that. People who need to be closer could sleep in the pet area. Having some people in there would keep the pets quieter. The pets would likely be an enormous emotional benefit to people who didn't even have pets, too. A "people only" area could be maintained for the allergic and phobic folks. I KNOW this would work.
---Kathy Diamond Davis