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Monday 05 September 2005

Insight From The Courtland Milloy Column

Today’s Courtland Milloy column, of all things, puts forth a good point of view on the debacle in New Orleans. The column is largely the story of one Michael K. Brackett Sr, a poor, presumably black man from Washington, DC.

Michael K. Brackett Sr. was standing outside his apartment in Southeast Washington on Saturday, taking a break after hours of watching televised coverage of Hurricane Katrina. He’d come to regard the rising floodwater as a metaphor for his own life struggles, and now he looked depressed.

“In this world, it’s who has money and who don’t,” said Brackett, 53, holding a beer in one hand and a newly purchased lottery ticket in the other. “I can’t tell you how tired I am of being one of the ones who don’t.”

I like the juxtaposition or the bad grammar, the beer, and the lottery ticket on one hand, and the wish to not be poor on the other.

Brackett goes on to say something that has not, to the best of my knowledge, appeared anywhere else in the Washington Post recently. On the subject of evacuation and shelter for ‘white’ people versus for ‘black’ people in New Orleans:

“I don’t see race having anything to do with how poor people were treated,” he said. “There were rich black folk in New Orleans, and they got away. I’m not trying to put anybody down. If I had money, I’d move away from this congestion, get me a nice house out in the woods, just like the rest. But this system seems geared towards only helping those who already have a piece of the pie.”

Hallelujah, someone’s got some sense. Except that Mr. Brackett misses the point — possibly understandably considering his perspective — that the people who ‘already have a piece of the pie’ don’t need help — or at least not as much help. It’s not a matter of the city having sent word to all the people making more than $100,000 a year, telling them to get out ahead of the storm: rather, those people listened to the same warnings that went out to the Lower 9th Ward, and evacuated of their own accord.

A lot has been said recently about the inability of poor people to evacuate, given that the New Orleans evacuation plan, as executed, appears to have been predicated on the use of private cars. These complaints seem a little dubious to me; while the city should have done more to deal with people who couldn’t come up with transportation of their own, I can’t believe that 20% of the population of the city — that’s the number I’ve heard most often — had neither a car, nor any friends with cars, nor any money with which to rent a car or buy a bus ticket. Some of them, certainly: but not 20%.

Maybe the causality, in at least some cases, runs in the other direction. Maybe the poorest people are so poor because they lack the ability to take in new information and to make good decisions based on it.

We can’t say that too loudly, though because it might be considered racist. But somehow it’s not racist to suggest that the poorest people of New Orleans (nearly all of whom are black) apparently don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain, so to speak, unless some government agency handles the entire process for them.

Did the government fail these people? Yes, it did, and what’s more it failed in one of the few things that I think everyone would agree is a legitimate function of government.

But this seems like a failure of government mainly in the sense that the government is a reflection of society. The sovereign individuals of the low-lying areas of New Orleans failed to adequately take care of their own needs, expecting the government to do it for them; the city and the state, in turn, seem to have been expecting the federal government to handle everything for them; and the federal government appears to be — or to have been, at least, for a few days — fumbling around, focusing on means instead of ends.

Posted by tino at 11:56 5.09.05
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One problem with the idea of renting a car to get out of town. There is a finite supply of rental cars and no where near enough to accomidate the added demand such a storm puts on the supply.

Just last night the local (Baltimore) news showed a couple just back from the horrors of New Orleans and the Superdome. The key fact of their story that relates to to the above is that they had money an dtried to rent a car to get out of town but no more were available.

Also the poor have largely come to rely not on themselves or even their communities but rather the government. As such unless someone in a position of authority comes around with assistance to do what needs to be done it won’t get done.

Additionally the constant hype about this storm and that I think contributed to a sense of complacincy on the part of many on the Gulf Coast.

Posted by: at September 5, 2005 10:58 PM