The unraveling

New Orleans descends deeper into chaos.

By T.g.

Published September 1, 2005 7:15PM (EDT)

The words from the Wall Street Journal are supposed to be comforting. San Francisco survived the 1906 earthquake. Chicago rebuilt after the fire. Hiroshima and Nagasaki recovered after the bomb.

But watching the events in New Orleans unfold, even through the cool light of a TV screen thousands of miles away, it's hard to feel that kind of hope. The TV camera distorts and deceives. It zeroes in on the unusual, the worst, and people inevitably find themselves putting on a show when they see the lens turn upon them. But still. The images from New Orleans are overwhelming, and the TV reporters covering it -- reporters who have, presumably, seen disasters before -- are overwhelmed. On CNN earlier today, a reporter told of watching people die in front of him. "Something needs to change," he said, "and it needs to change today." His voice cracked with anger, and the anchor back in the studio picked up on it. Why is it taking so long to get help to people, she asked. Where is the food? Where is the water? When will it come?

We are four days into this, and things are getting worse, not better. That's not how it's supposed to be. Two days after 9/11, the FAA allowed the resumption of commercial air traffic in America. In the aftermath of that attack, of the Loma Prieta earthquake in California and so many other disasters, the death toll went down, not up. Survivors returned to their lives. The TV screens were filled with tales of grief and loss, but also with scenes of neighbors helping strangers, of people coming together. That's not what we're seeing from New Orleans now. On CNN, we see bodies lying in the street. We hear the governor of Louisiana saying that she now believes "thousands" of people have been killed. We see looting. We hear that somebody fired gunshots at a rescue helicopter. We hear that a sniper is taking shots at people trying to evacuate a hospital. We read that FEMA has suspended boat rescue operations because the danger -- not from floodwaters but from people driven by chaos, desperation or their own worst angels -- is too great.

There's violence in New Orleans, some of it opportunistic, some of it borne of frustration with the pace of aid, some of it probably a spilling over of years' worth of bottled-up rage over divisions of race and class. We listened this morning as a woman, who has taken up residence near an underpass, said that she's broke, that tomorrow is payday, but that there's no place to go to pick up her paycheck and no place to spend it if she could. Other refugees -- and they're using that word about Americans now -- are stuck in temporary facilities growing unsafe and unsanitary from filth and human waste. As authorities tried to move people from the Superdome into buses that would take them to Houston's Astrodome today, a group broke free in the hopes of storming into a nearby Hyatt Regency. They were stopped by police in Kevlar armed with 12-gauge shotguns and AR15s. The mayor of New Orleans has just sent out what he's calling a "desperate SOS," saying that the city is out of resources to help 15,000 to 20,000 people gathered in the city's convention center and doesn't have a way to take them anywhere else.

"Losing Control," says the headline at the ABC News site. The New York Times warns of an increasingly "desperate and chaotic city." The New Orleans Times-Picayune says: "Unrest Intensifies." The Washington Post leads with a photo of white cops in riot gear rolling through a sea of black faces on some kind of armored transport. It looks like something out of the Third World. It's a city in the United States of America, and it feels like it's coming apart at the seams.

Does the president understand what's happening? Can he do anything about it? Cops from other states are now flooding into Louisiana, where they'll be deputized to help local law enforcement. More National Guard units are on the way. In time, they'll restore order. In time, New Orleans will rebuild. But the people in New Orleans need help now. They need food and water and sanitary facilities. They need hope that their ordeal will end soon, that they'll have something worth having when they go back home again.

It's probably too big of a job for any president, but the current one is plainly not up to the task. George W. Bush just went before the cameras with President Clinton and the first President Bush to announce that they'll launch a private fundraising drive to help, just like they did for the tsunami that savaged Southeast Asia. Bush made a nod to the need to restore "law and order" in New Orleans, but he spent most of his address talking about his efforts to keep gasoline flowing to the rest of the country. "The good folks must understand that major refineries have been shut down, which means it's going to be hard to get gasoline to some markets," the president said. "Americans should be prudent in their use of energy in the next few days. Don't buy gas if you don't need it."

It's a fine message for the rest of the country, but it doesn't say much to the people of New Orleans. They're watching their city explode around them -- they're watching conditions get worse -- and many of them are feeling, rightly or wrongly, that their government isn't doing much to help them. President Bush speaks, but he doesn't speak to or for people like them. He never has. As Bush ended his talk about gas prices and relief efforts today, Bill Clinton lingered for a moment in front of the cameras as if he wanted to say something or at least hear his successor say something more. The president walked briskly out of the room.

By T.g.


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