Friday, September 23, 2005
THE POLITICS OF NATURAL DISASTER
aving planned to write something weeks ago about the media politics and some of the other rather disgusting displays of public discourse which made landfall on the heels of that horridly racist hurricane Katrina (I'm suddenly overtaken by the mental image of a flock of ambulance-chasing lawyers), I find that now when I have the opportunity to sit down and write it, her even more powerful sister is ready to also make landfall in her wake. Whether Rita proves to be as much of a racist weather system as Katrina, remains to be seen. Hopefully the evacuations will go a lot more smoothly this time, and considering what's still fresh in everyone's mind, I'm sure it will.
My ultimate aim in thinking about this article, was to encourage readers to share in what I feel is the single best essay I've had the honour to read for a very long time. So I'll get that part out of the way first. Bill Whittle writes infrequently on a blog called Eject!Eject!Eject! (yes, even more infrequently than I), and his work is always quite impressive. But I have to say that his essay called "Tribes" must be one of his best ever. Inspired by the first few days events after Katrina struck, during the period of the most shrill fingerpointing and blame-festivities, Whittle wrote of our tribes not in the sense of race or culture or ideology, but in a deeper sense of how we respond to crises, and a call of honour and duty to our fellow men and women. Some will respond in certain ways, others will respond differently, and it is through these decisions (which are made in the deepest part of our being instantaneously rather than by rational thought processes) that we each choose the tribe to which we existentially belong. This will sound far to simplistic to do justice to this inspiring and passionate piece. All I feel capable of doing here is encouraging everyone to please read this essay, and think about it seriously. If it moves you, send it to friends who might also appreciate it. If it were in my power, I'd have it printed on the front page of every newspaper, in every language.
Having been as wrapped up as I was in the daily developments of the greatest disaster I'm likely to witness in my lifetime just a few months ago, being at that time in a position to see live continual coverage of the near absolute destruction of coastal Aceh, the main thing I noticed first about Katrina's aftermath was how different the victims seemed to be. I realise now that this was a skewed perception, because we were all seeing what the network reporters were pushing at us. Now that we've had more time to hear from a more representative cross section of people, and learn more about the stories which didn't make the news during the crisis phase, it's clear that many people actually did take responsibility for themselves, their families, their neighbours and strangers alike. There was even one AP story which talked about people in the inner city of New Orleans forming into tribes for protection against other, predatory groups, rich and poor banding together and dividing up the labour. Countless tales of selfless sacrifice and duty toward unknown strangers must still remain to be told, and hopefully in time they will be. But in those early days, we heard little of that.
At the time though, media reports gave the impression that those who failed to escape the city were either whining and helpless victims, or vicious looters and rapists. We also saw police officers who fell into the looter category, and a mayor and governor who fell into the whiner category. Of all the ordinary city dwellers who were stranded, we were presented mainly with people who would say things like, "Look at this water, look at this mess! Where's George Bush?" and "Some people down there told us to come up here. Now here we are and there's no food. Where's my bus? Nobody's doin' nothin'!" In all the hours of coverage I watched in the aftermath of the tsunami in Aceh, I don't remember once hearing such stuff. The sense of expecting the government to control everything, to do the impossible, to be ready and waiting immediately after a catastrophic event at your elbow to give you sandwiches and coffee (and have your prescription handy) .... it just does not compute. How quickly people forget that it was weeks before many of those Acehnese towns saw any outsiders whatsoever -- and many of them hiked for days before anyone even knew they'd survived. The sight of an Acehnese villager sitting down on the obliterated ruins of his town, and whining about why the government isn't here doing something, well that is a picture I did not see even once.
What we did see is the traumatised survivors helping themselves, finding safety, organising rescue teams to search for other survivors, dividing up the labour and taking responsibility for each other. All this long before any "first responders" showed up. Indonesians (and I dare say, people in most any place in the world) are under no illusions that the "government" is an all-powerful entity that can swoop down instantaneously and pluck them out of a disaster on this scale. Even in the US, where people would understandably have the highest expectations in this regard, people are supposed to understand that in such an event, for the first couple of days you are likely to be absolutely on your own. Emergency plans often explicity state this, knowing that local city authorities (who are tasked with first response) may be heavily damaged themselves. State or provincial apparatus will be next on the scene, and emergency plans are constructed around the assumption that it will take them 48 - 72 hours to mobilise. When Katrina hit, Navy ships were in place in the Gulf, and followed the hurricane after it landed. They were moving mobile hospitals and supplies ashore within hours, as soon as it was possible to do so. Yet days later, I was still hearing critics claiming the ships were out there doing nothing -- that their onboard hospital facilities were empty. The grain of truth spun into a falsehood. The ships' hospitals were empty, because they and their staffs and doctors were already at sites around the city -- it's much more efficient than ferrying people back and forth to ships offshore.
The American Expat in Southeast Asia has a couple of articles up now reflecting on his experience (he's in Kuala Lumpur) with local reaction in Malaysia to the television coverage of Katrina. It's pretty interesting, and I would say very similar to what I've heard people say here. As I've said, the level of mutual responsibility in Aceh after their disaster -- which had a death toll several hundred times that of Katrina -- was something quite inspiring, and humbling. I think anyone would be right to wonder whether oneself would have the strength to carry on for days if not weeks amid such devastation, with no outside assistance at all. A few looters apparently did try their hand at making the most of it -- check out the photo on the Expat's page to see how such rare fellows were ostracised and humiliated by the tribe.
But I'm now beginning to feel that the portrayal of all those stranded for three or four days in New Orleans, as a mass of people all griping about Bush and Cheney and FEMA doing nothing to help them, was a very inaccurate one which the media strove to create. They wanted anger, they sought it out, and there was enough to get plenty of good sound bites. After Bush's speech from Jackson Square last week, ABC news went looking for more such anger and bitterness among a group of refugees still making home at the Houston Astrodome. It was great. The reporter was obviously fishing for anti-Bush quotes and he got quite the opposite. The people had all listened to the speech, and he couldn't find anyone to get angry. They felt sincerity, they felt their hopes uplifted, and when he could drag out any indications of blame from these people, they placed it mainly with Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco. You could say it was a backfire which brought into focus the partisan agenda of that particular journalist -- a classic piece of American journalism. Likewise CNN's embarassment when it was revealed last week that prior to interviewing someone on air, a producer had pleaded with the subject to "Please, just get angry. We want you to be angry." When you know the media are actively seeking out angry respondents -- and specifically angry anti-Bush respondents -- and promoting these to the top of the newscasts, then it's no mystery why we saw so much of that. Another classic was a guy at the Astrodome, saying that the Superdome in N.O. was the modern equivalent of "slave ships", and demanded $20,000 per person as reparations.
The disgusting use of the ongoing catastrophe to score political points, as it was still taking place, was something I never quite expected to see carried forth in such a shameless way. And to boot, the two people whose emergency authority preceded that of the federal government were among the worst cases of such indulgence. The mayor was so busy pointing fingers with both hands in all directions, it slipped his notice that his administration had completely ignored an emergency plan already in place with detailed procedures for this exact circumstance. It was as though it never existed. Now we also know how scattered and indecisive the state governor was, declaring she needed 24 hours to consider a decision, while she still had time to cry in front of cameras. Now we know that it was state authority which prevented Red Cross and Salvation Army to move ready stores of supplies to the Superdome, because they didn't want to encourage more people to go there, or for those already there to get too comfortable and want to stay too long, or something. Then of course, the famous pictures of Nagin's Navy -- fleets of buses parked all over the city, submerged in water. Amtrak made one late, last chance departure from downtown, offering hundreds of empty seats for evacuation. Local authorities said no, for reasons I can't begin to guess.
The same groups of people who for the past 3 or 4 years have been decrying Bush as a fascist dictator, suddenly were equally loud with shouts of "Bush is doing nothing! He doesn't care about black people! Those people were left behind because they are black and poor!" Now we know that Bush tried to convince the state governor to take the constitutional step required (declare her state National Guard under federal authority) before he could legally do what everyone was demanding. She didn't want to cede authority, refused a compromise shared authority structure plan hastily drawn up to please her, and finally only days later did what she should have done in the first place. The only way Bush could have cut this nonsense short, would have been to declare a state of insurrection, something that hasn't happened since the Civil War. In short, the voices of protest were demanding that their long-derided "dictator in chief", actually take dictatorial powers for real! Oh how they would have screamed if he'd done so....
There is plenty of blame for everyone, and every level of goverment. But I did get the feeling that many of these groups and partisans that seized on the event to "get Bush" would soon wish they'd been a little more careful. Bush surely made some bad mistakes, but at this stage they seem mostly in the area of terrible PR rather than serious mistakes in action. Many of the claims have already been shown false, such as the feds withholding investments in levees and ignoring warnings of just this sort of event, or blocking projects which would have prevented the flooding... even the picture of him "playing guitar on vacation" while "not caring about black people." These and more were largely contrived for a particular agenda -- elements in society saw the disaster as an opportunity to further their political war against this man. There was actual glee expressed at the prospect of nailing Bush once and for all over this.
The head of FEMA was hounded from his job -- and maybe he deserved it, I don't know enough about his work to be sure. But only after that happened, did we hear that he had led FEMA response to four previous large hurricane strikes during his tenure, and by most accounts these responses were efficient and well conducted. On a more gritty level, many of the claims made during the crisis period (more like rumours propelled with great force by an excitable media) turned out to have no basis in fact. Nobody has found any of the raped babies or children with slit throats yet, or the stacks of murder victims hidden somewhere in the Dome, nor indeed most of the 10,000 bodies the mayor claimed were out there (one day he said 1000 deaths, the next day it was up by 1000%). An exitable writer/social activist at the Huff 'n Puff Post (Arianna's blog-news site) declared on about the second day, that the poverty stricken black victims of Katrina were being forced to resort to cannibalism just to stay alive! The idiot retracted it a few days later. And how many times did we hear armchair experts going on about how the US can save people instantly on the other side of the world but can't do anything in one of their own cities, when the disaster affected areas in three states was actually almost as large as the entire United Kingdom.
I was frankly shocked with what the BBC did with all this. As far as I'm concerned now, that will stand for the Bush Bashing Corporation until they can show me some measure of recovering their long lost reputation for professionalism. Matt Frei was absolutely disgusting with his sneering and snark, and I for one will never be able to think of him as a journalist any longer. To use his own awkward phrase, he is "deeply tinged" (think about it) with Bush Derangement Syndrome -- though "deeply saturated" would work better, and have the added benefit of being a sensible construction. In one of his breathless reports, he referred to the "911 affair" and recalled the scene of Bush "standing on a pile of rubbish" -- meaning the rubble, or ruins I suppose, of the WTC. Rubbish?
He drew vivid pictures of the vicious racist hell that is America for the folks back home, describing "white police officers carrying large shotguns, while poor black victims died right in front of them, and the white police would do nothing to help." But he later confidently declared, after most of the people had been evacuated, that New Orleans was now "safest city in America" (New Orleans, pre-Katrina, had one of the highest crime rates in the country, and if it had only a slightly higher population -- needing 500,000 to be counted as a major city in the murder-rate stakes -- would have been the murder capital of the country as well). Frei sonorously intoned that "we are constantly coming across bodies... dead ones," reminding us that the disaster "....turned their city into a living graveyard." Huh?? He accosted a group of rescuers doing their work -- when the prime directive was still to locate and save the living -- with this gem: "Call me obsessive, but why is nobody taking this body away?"
I do complain a lot here about BBC bias, but even I had not expected to see such blatant misuse of tragedy to advance such transparent institutional (and often personal, as with Frei and some of the others on the ground) bias. The BBC seemed sometimes even more shrill than the politically partisan domestic groups seeking advantage from calamity. And I see that I'm not alone in this. Even the British Prime Minister noticed it, as did the previous US president:
TONY Blair has re-opened the government's long-standing row about BBC bias by describing the corporation's coverage of the aftermath of the havoc caused to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina as being "full of hatred of America"...But get this: BBC personality Jeremy Clarkson, whose bailiwick is normally his auto shows, couldn't restrain himself in a newspaper column. A reader at The Corner emailed:
Bill Clinton, the former US president, and Sir Howard Stringer, chief executive of Sony Corporation, also criticised the tone of the BBC's coverage during a seminar on the media at the Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York.
Murdoch said Blair first turned on the BBC's coverage of New Orleans flooding disaster during a recent visit to New Delhi. "He said it was just full of hatred of America and gloating at our troubles," Murdoch claimed.
this is from The Sun, the UK's largest newspaper, on saturday, Sept 10 2005, in a column by Jeremy Clarkson. I quote this verbatim (it's not up on their website, so i'm typing it in)Yes Jeremy, of course. Helicopter gunships blowing refugees back to the stone age... or back into Frei's "living graveyard" I guess. What a buffoon. For a little more on the BBC's Katrina coverage, see "The Beeb Easy" and on the UK blog USS Neverdock for a wider view of the BBC's general trashing of its own reputation. Wai The American Expatriate for the latter.
"Hollywood has taught America that the military can solve anything. It's full of chisel-jawed heroes who never leave a man on the field and never fail to get the job done. So they'd have New Orleans sorted out in a jiffy.
Unfortunately, on the street you've got some poor, starving souls helping themselves to a packet of food from a ruined, deserted supermarket. And as a result, finding themselves being blown to pieces by a helicopter gunship. With the none-too-bright soldiers urged on by their illiterate political masters, the poor and needy never stood a chance. It's easier and much more fun to shoot someone than make them a cup of tea. Especially if they're black."
But there was plenty of silliness and stupidity from more local sources too. "Minister" Nashim Nzinga expounded on the vast conspiracy on national television, while local a Lousisiana parish president, Aaron Broussard lied and cried -- at the same time, in what was prematurely hailed as a "defining moment" of the Katrina disaster. Perhaps it was more "defining" than the originator of that dubious claim actually realised. And even yet closer to home, Canada's formerly respectable national daily, the Globe and Mail, saw fit to not just publish, but prominently publish on feature section front, a piece of incredible tripe from a well known loon. Here's a great piece from the National Post on the Globe's shameful moment. Wai Damian Penny in Cornerbrook Nfld.
How about a reality check from Japan, a country known to have occasional catastrophic earthquakes. Wai InstaPundit for this one -- a sample:
In Japan, what we're told is this: A disaster may render you unreachable. It may cut you off from communication networks and utilities. The appropriate government agencies (starting at the neighborhood level and moving upward depending on the magnitude of the damage) will respond as quickly as they can, but you may be on your own for days until they do. Prepare supplies. Learn escape routes. Then learn alternate escape routes. Know what your region's points of vulnerability are. Get to know your neighbors (especially the elderly or infirm) so you can help each other out and account for each other. Follow directions if you're told to evacuate. Stay put if you aren't. Participate in the earthquake preparation drills in your neighborhood.Sometimes I wish I could see somebody in a position to just scold some of these petulant journalists -- someone with the stature to be able to just tell them to be more responsible and less stupid (and of course, it doesn't apply across the board, which should go without saying). Well now I have my wish. Nobody has a bad word to say about the military commander now in charge of Gulf operations, Lt. Gen. Honore. Radio Blogger has the transcript of an exchange he had with some reporters a few days ago, when operations are already gearing up to respond to hurricane Rita. A partial quote:
If that's the attitude of people in collectivist, obedient, welfare-state Japan, it is beyond the wit of man why any American should be sitting around entertaining the idea that Washington should be the first (or second or fifteenth) entity to step in and keep the nasty wind and rain and shaky-shaky from hurting you. Sheesh.
Honore: [...] And we understand that there's a problem in getting communications out. That's where we need your help. But let's not confuse the questions with the answers. Buses at the convention center will move our citizens, for whom we have sworn that we will support and defend...and we'll move them on. Let's not get stuck on the last storm. You're asking last storm questions for people who are concerned about the future storm. Don't get stuck on stupid, reporters. We are moving forward. And don't confuse the people please. You are part of the public message. So help us get the message straight. And if you don't understand, maybe you'll confuse it to the people. That's why we like follow-up questions. But right now, it's the convention center, and move on.Terrific! I love this guy! "You are stuck on stupid." He nails it exactly with five words. And a nice reminder of what the reporters are actually supposed to be doing, as a necessary part of the communications structure for the population's very safety. "You are part of the public message." Here's the video (but only the very last bit of the above quote). Expect that to come into widespread usage now, a catchphrase is born. "Matt Frei, you sanctimonious buffoon, you are stuck on stupid!" Heh.
Male reporter: General, a little bit more about why that's happening this time, though, and did not have that last time...
Honore: You are stuck on stupid. I'm not going to answer that question. We are going to deal with Rita.