When the Cavalry Doesn’t Come

Five years ago this week, as I watched Michael Brown stand shiny and clean on camera and receive one of the worst alleged atta-boys of all time, I knew in my gut he was being set up.

Life in the reality canyon.

I remember the physical discomfort between “Brownie” and the President.  I remember the way those words, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” came out of the mouth of the FEMA chief’s ultimate boss and the look on Brown’s face.  You can see in that instant he knows a hell of a lot more than he can share. It was painful.  The words were condescending, and artificial and inappropriate and awful on every level; and they highlighted a yawning reality canyon between those two men as well as between the federal government and the states.

Much has been written and expressed in other — often artistic — forms about how the nightmare of Hurricane Katrina removed any mask we might be wanting to put on our fundamental lack of progress around racial disparities.  I can’t disagree.  The literal black and white disgrace that was FEMA’s total disconnect with the very kind of situation it exists to manage is burned on our nation’s history.  No one can say the authorities on every level “didn’t know” it was going to be a disaster.  Extensive records exist that verify the proper people knew exactly what was poised to go down.

I still have no accounting for what exactly fell apart.  Michael Brown’s continued efforts to explain it only seem to make things worse by ripping off what frail bandage we had on the memories and yet leaving no more healing in its place.

Mike Hale of the New York Times said it well when he described Spike Lee’s portrayal of the aftermath (emphasis added is mine):

Released just a year after Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” was a thrilling achievement: both intimate and magisterial, angry and eloquent, an indictment and a testament, it represented a high point in the career of its director, Spike Lee.

It was definitively racial.  But as a West Virginian, I saw more.  I do believe it was racial in New Orleans, but I feel some of the same kinds of nausea at home, where the U.S. Census measures our population at over 94% white.  I think the most powerful common denominator is a profound disregard for human life when that life is uneducated and living in poverty.

I want to believe that if some natural disaster befell West Virginia, that the cavalry would come.  That the nation would turn on the television and see our plight and send every resource to save us.  What I saw 5 years ago in New Orleans scared the hell out of me, because I no longer have that belief.  I think some populations are considered disposable and not worth the effort and expense, and as much as I don’t want to believe it, Katrina took away my suspension of disbelief.

The Sago mine disaster was a perversion of this grinding fear.  Every day in West Virginia (and around the world) human beings go deep underground and risk their health and their lives so I can use my laptop (see The Short Ladders for some stats on our state’s educational attainment, or lack thereof).  There is a lot of drama around rescues once people are in trouble, but very little evidence that the nation is serious about reducing dependence on coal or that most coal companies themselves see these human beings as something more than replaceable commodities.

I’ll conclude where I began, with the “heck of a job” video clip and Michael Brown.  I don’t know anything about Mr. Brown.  He may be a negligent incompetent monster, but that seems less likely than he was one man at the helm of a critically important federal agency that the powers that be had no real interest in leveraging during Katrina. 

The question remains why, and if it would have been the same story in the Hamptons.

7 thoughts on “When the Cavalry Doesn’t Come

  1. Katrina and later the Deepwater Horizon spill are simply examples of the human tendency to solve problems instead of preventing them- no excuses, but that’s the way we work. I’m guessing the most exceptional bureaucrats are those we never hear about because they aren’t associated with disasters (they did their jobs by thinking ahead). This is also part of the problem in a democracy- who wants to spend money on disaster avoidance measures? How does a pol get his constituents to vote for that? Considering the somewhat maniacal (though superficially logical) focus on deficit reduction, will money be allocated to handle such disasters in the future? BP will pick up most of the oil spill tab, but if another Katrina comes along I doubt we will be prepared and I doubt that city will survive (whatever the city). I only hope more forethought, deep thinking and empathy guide those in charge of fixing the mess than were evident with Katrina. I need to think more on the racial and socioeconomic components. I do believe that those with power get the breaks due to their $$$ and connections, and that left a lot of New Orleans hanging. But in a democracy like ours is that avoidable? It isn’t right, but is it avoidable?

    • All I can share is my opinion, so I will. Yes, I think it’s avoidable.

      I had someone really light into me over this post, about how unfair it was to think anyone can “control mother nature.” I am one of the very last people you will ever find who will even suggest something so crazy. We absolutely cannot control hurricanes or any other major force of nature. But we can plan, and we can establish a mindset of prevention where possible when human life is at stake.

      We do this all the time with defense systems and budgets. Our entire mindset is disaster avoidance. For me, FEMA is another arm of the DOD. It should operate as such, not just as a feel-good agency that will help if it can get around to it.

      I think people forget how much time went by between NOAA’s hurricane disaster center predicitons and the time federal help actually appeared in NO. It was bizarre, and while I think you are very generous in your assessment, I do not think the generosity is deserved on the part of those receiving it.

  2. I hope my comment didn’t have a “s**t happens” feel to it, an uncaring vibe, because that isn’t what I intended. The response to Katrina was and probably still is horrible.

    My basic point is that to prevent such disasters a LOT of money has to be spent and planning done ahead of time, before we see what a lack of such forethought can lead to. I perceived the government’s response to the oil spill as very good. But in both cases, lack of planning made such disasters possible. The levees in New Orleans were neglected and weren’t up to snuff anyway- from what I understand, the new systems will still have a nervous margin for error if the wrong storm hits the wrong place again. Money wasn’t spent ahead of time developing ways to mitigate deep water well blowouts and the “preventers” apparently were crappy bandaids for a problem they didn’t think would happen, at least not in such a huge way. Also, the MMS did an AWFUL job in looking over its domain.

    Essentially I agree with you on the role of FEMA, the need for preparation. However, I fear that the ceiling on how much play it gets, though, is far too low. This is where I think democracy fails in general- people don’t like to pay taxes, though they like the benefits. If they can’t SEE the benefits, then they think money is being wasted. People can see military equipment (though Gates, a favorite of mine is keen on cutting defense spending waste). Unfortunately, spending money on levees and methods to stop runaway wells isn’t tangible to most; similarly the stimulus spending is viewed by many as wasteful since it “merely saved” a couple million jobs instead of creating new jobs. I think in these matters of natural disasters (or manmade) we will always tend to play catch up. I only hope that improvement in how the government reacts continues to improve. Judging by how Deepwater was dealt with, I think a lesson has been learned at New Orlean’s expense. Regarding preemptive avoidance, though- in principle, I agree with you, I only doubt such principles will lead to such a reality.

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