The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Three Years Later

by Tricia Dower

Three years ago, a few days from now, Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast, only eight months after walls of water two stories high swept entire villages to sea and killed a quarter of a million people in a dozen other countries. The Indian Ocean earthquake that raised those walls is said to have released the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs.

Katrina had nowhere near that force, yet after nearly every levee in metro New Orleans was breached, 80% of the city and many areas of neighboring parishes were flooded for weeks. Seventy-one percent of New Orleans’ occupied housing was damaged, making it the largest residential disaster in U.S. history.

The title story of my collection, Silent Girl, is book-ended by these catastrophes of biblical proportions. I researched them for that story and like to check in from time to time to find out how recovery is proceeding. Whether we’re talking about New Orleans or Asia, the ones who suffered the most were the most disadvantaged to begin with.

For example, over 100,000 undocumented Burmese migrants were working in the rubber, construction, and tourism industries on Thailand's western coast when the tsunami hit. Those who survived were deliberately excluded from all official assistance, denied shelter in camps, and left on their own to survive.

Remember the pictures of the mostly poor, mostly black people in New Orleans abandoned to primitive conditions at the Superdome? As Ruth Gidley reports in this Reuters blog, “Katrina not only changed the way the rest of the world views one of the richest countries on the planet, it changed the way storm survivors think about their government.”

A recent Kaiser Foundation survey revealed that most New Orleans residents still feel forgotten by their government and their fellow citizens. Contributing to that feeling is the fact that less than half the federal money set aside for rebuilding has actually been spent on it. Similarly in Asia, $1.6 billion was earmarked for rebuilding after the tsunami but war and politics have slowed down the work. A UN-led effort has begun to install tsunami-warning systems in the Indian Ocean, but work on strengthening the levees in New Orleans won't be done until 2011.

This is on my mind right now because I’ve been following coverage of the Democratic Convention in Denver and trying not to get swept away by the rhetoric on change. It’s tough, though. I shed a few tears during Ted Kennedy’s speech. Not from affection —I haven’t forgotten Mary Jo Kopechne—but because of his call for “a better world” with “justice for the many.” It brought me back to the days of JFK when I, like the many young Obama disciples today, was eager to stand on the edge of the “new frontier” Kennedy spoke of. I wept during Michelle Obama’s speech, too, when she recalled Barak saying we too easily accept the distance between “the world as it is” and “the world as it should be.”

I’d like to believe Obama would lead the effort to bridge that distance but my hope is tempered by history. Time and again we demonstrate how little we care for the poor and others we marginalize. We send money when disaster first strikes but we quickly lose interest, junkies for the next sensational story, unwilling to share long-term with others. It’s difficult for us to sustain the effort required to effect lasting change. In New Orleans, that would involve dealing with the deep-seated racism and class divides that are barriers to a good education for all, decent housing for all, and livable wages for all.

In Canada, I’m guessing it would be the same, eh?

Photo: Whites find/Blacks loot. The different slants given these two photos when they appeared three years ago caused a stir. The caption for the one top left read: "A young man walks through chest deep flood water after looting a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005." (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

The caption for the photo on the right read: "Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store." (AFP/Getty Images/Chris Graythen)


Blogger T. Lee said...

Oh, I think, as much as Canadians may not want to admit it, our Katrina would likely pan out the similarly. I think of the propane blast and the listerios outbreak... I'm not sure if we fare any better.

Thank you for this. You know, I just read a David Sedaris essay in an old New Yorker, in which he was talking about the uneven contributions/aid for animals versus people. (the synopsis is here:

Thu Aug 28, 06:04:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

What a great -- and disturbing -- essay from Sedaris. Thanks for providing the link, Tamara. Maybe the softer heart some people have for animals is due to their perceived helplessness whereas other humans are "just like us" and supposed to fend for themselves. But, as Sedaris observes, April didn't really need him to feed her.

Fri Aug 29, 04:27:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Glad you were able to locate the full essay. That 'fend for yourself' line makes me think of Obama's DNC speech. Yes. I think the common, sadly common, belief is that folks should just fend for themselves.

I'm in awe of Sedaris's essay style. But I haven't read a lot of his stuff. When I do, I'm always impressed. I never thought I'd care for Alice (a modern-day Charlotte).

Fri Aug 29, 05:31:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

It wasn't April, it was Alice?? So much for my reading comprehension.

Fri Aug 29, 10:12:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous Ruth Taylor said...

Thank you for reminding us of these anniversaries, Tricia, sad as they are. Your blog had an added bonus for me this week because Ruth Gidley was a friend of mine in Guatemala. Nice to learn what she's been up to and that she continues to write. I'll have to leave a note for her at the link you provided too.

Sat Aug 30, 04:23:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Ruth, what a coincidence that you know Gidley. I thought her article summed up the situation nicely. As I watch the reports of Hurricane Gustav on a trajectory for the Gulf I am glad to see people evacuating already and that the poor, sick and disabled are being transported to other cities now in anticipation of disaster. Maybe we CAN learn.

Sat Aug 30, 04:39:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

And I just watched Mitt Romney's speech at the RNC. I think it actually caused me pain. The toughest part is living in the US and not being able to vote.

Thu Sep 04, 01:28:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Yeah, I can still vote, Steve, and I got my absentee ballot today. But the whole campaign is causing me pain. So nasty.

Thu Sep 11, 12:35:00 am GMT-4  

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