Watching the documentary When the Levees Broke in class reminded me of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. We were reminded of how cruel the natural world can be while being reminded of how cruel people can be towards other people. The hurricane destroyed a large part of the Southeast region of the US, a region that is still mostly destroyed even after 10 years. Volunteer groups continue to visit that region in order to rebuild houses.
When I look back on the event, I remember the seemingly lack of urgency that the government had in helping those people affected. I remember watching the news and hearing that President Bush was on vacation even as the storm was reaching its peak. I believe that there was no excuse for waiting entire days before sending help and relief. These were people desperately holding onto their lives and searching for any beacon of hope in a dire situation. I remember the fact that my math teacher could no longer use her name at school because hearing the word Katrina was too traumatic. I also remember the notorious comment by Kanye West that seemed to express what many Black people felt at the time: “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people”.
I read chapter four (“Disaster”) from Melissa Harris-Perry’s book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. The information she gathered as a lead researcher was not surprising. Yet, it was still very disturbing. Harris-Perry found that “while most White Americans saw the hurricane’s aftermath as tragic, they understood it primarily as a natural disaster followed by technical and bureaucratic failures. Most black Americans saw it as a racial disaster”. Harris-Perry continues quoting Black survivors’ accounts of being mistreated which they believed were due to racial biases.
However, the problem came down to your average, everyday, basic human need: the need for acknowledgment. Some people had this need fulfilled. Many did not. Harris-Perry quotes part of an account of a Black woman affected by Hurricane Katrina:
She and her family have dire material needs–for safety, food, water, shelter, clothing, medicine, and rest–but they also need to feel that someone acknowledges their humanity.
The woman wants someone to help her which they can do by listening to her, talking to her, helping her or even just by looking at her. I read an article that addressed how Hurricane Katrina survivors who were not White or Black were rarely if ever addressed. Take a moment and try to remember how the media covered this event: the pictures they showed, the words they used, the events they addressed. If you can acknowledge the people were forgotten and misrepresented in media coverage, you can acknowledge that race did play a large role in analyzing the effects of this natural disaster on our nation.
Though survivors had to focus on their basic needs, survivors had to reevaluate their relationships with each other and with other citizens across the US. A Hurricane Katrina survivor states:
Katrina was the great equalizer. I got frisked just like the woman next to me from the housing project. I had to stand in line in the hot sun, just like everybody else. I had to go to the bathroom, just like everybody else. I got yelled at to shut up, just like everybody else.
Interestingly enough, equalize can mean “to equalize” or “to make uniform”. It becomes apparent how this single word can take on different meanings for different groups of survivors. For some survivors, Katrina made social status dismantle so that citizens were made equal in how they were affected by the natural disaster and had to cope with the circumstances. For some survivors, Katrina made social status more apparent so that citizens were affected uniformly in such a way that reinforced institutional racism.
How far have we come? Who has their average, everyday, basic human need met?