03 September 2005

100,000 "Afterthoughts?"

Does this one really need any commentatry?


Disparaging the Have-Nots Trapped in New Orleans

Disparaging the have-nots trapped in New Orleans

By Frank Pitz
Online Journal Contributing Writer

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September 2, 2005—The tragedy that is New Orleans—in addition to the devastation of a beautiful city—also puts the spotlight on another type of tragedy, that of the urban poor.

We have been treated one and all to the unrelenting news videos of pre- and post- New Orleans, and I don't know about anyone else but the glaring disparity between the pre and the post news takes and interviews are quite obvious.

In the interminable hours of coverage before the storm that was Katrina we were inundated by a virtual phalanx of major and minor newscasters—overwhelmingly white—scrambling to present the "perfect sound byte." The obligatory on-camera interviews with the requisite federal, state, and local officials—along with the "man in the street" were brought to us ad-nauseam.

The phrase "mandatory evacuation" was played over and over again, along with the videos of overflowing traffic on the highways as well as lines at the gas pumps. Along the way singular examples of the panicked egress were picked by news producers looking for that little extra oomph factor. I recall one aside of a businessman who paid $3,000 for first-class "one-way" tickets to Dallas, Texas, for his family because he didn't think he could get "very far" driving since the "gas situation" was chancy.

Along with these stories of evacuation we were also informed—almost as an afterthought—that there were over 100,000 people "without cars or transportation in New Orleans, who could not leave." We learned that the New Orleans Superdome would become "the shelter of last resort" for these people.

As the news cameras panned over the crowds of predominately minority, elderly, and disabled people waiting, to get into the Superdome, I flashed to the header of a news story I had read in my local paper that morning: "the haves leaving New Orleans—the have-nots remain." How typical, how true, them that has, gets; them that wants, gets left behind, apologies to Billie Holiday.

Ironically enough, in the aftermath of Katrina it was extremely difficult for on-scene talking heads to find a white face to place a microphone in front of—outside of those emergency personnel trying to cope with the disaster. So we were—by default—forced to view the heartbreak of just what it means to be a "have-not" during a disaster. The folks confined within the Superdome did not have the comfort of a bed in a hotel. The folks in the Superdome didn't have the first-class "leaving on a jet airliner." No, the confinees within the Superdome had meals-ready-to-eat (MREs), a shortage of toilet facilities, no beds to sleep in, and water rising all around them. Disaster in New Orleans as metaphor for life in these United States.

Having virtually no white faces—outside of the newscasters themselves—to place in front of the microphones we were treated to video of minorities wading through flooded streets. We were exposed to the ubiquitous looting stories—left to draw our own conclusions, of course—as the pillaging sound bytes became a de-facto racial denunciation.

In a related thread to the last paragraph, Wednesday Yahoo News carried two photos with captions from New Orleans. The first photo was from AFP Getty Images and bylined Chris Grayson; it showed a young man and woman, both white with the caption: "Two residents wade through chest deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store." The second photo was bylined Associated Press with no photographer credit, its caption read: "A young black man walked through chest deep flood waters after looting a grocery store." So, the white folks "found" their food, the black guy "looted" his. Any further explanations needed?

Disasters typically bring out the best, and worst in people as we all know. For every scene of looting there are as well numerous scenes of heroics. I listened to an interview on NPR, the morning after Katrina, with a woman—emergency services worker—who had been at her post for more than 18 hours and the fatigue, as well as concern for those caught up in this tragedy, was evident in her wavering voice. These are the stories within the stories of a disaster. I come away with the feeling that the national media—save for a token 'good news' story or two—is much more interested in playing up the "have" and "have not" aspect.

Of course we all know just what drives the media engines: disaster, sensationalism, and people acting badly, which boosts the rating and profitability sectors of their respective bottom lines. Never mind finding out—asking the hard questions—like why in a city that is mostly below sea level there were no plans for evacuation of all its residents? Knowing the levee system could be overwhelmed, thereby inundating the city and leaving over 100,000 mostly minority, elderly, and disabled people without a way out appears to me to be rather callous. Of course, we realize that such a 'non-plan' goes well beyond the scope of mere callousness and the mainstream media certainly has no intention of going there.

The next crises to certainly come will be health related. As sure as night follows day, we will begin to see outbreaks of infectious diseases. Potable drinking water is at a premium, and raw sewage is flowing with the floodwaters as well as poisonous snakes and other critters. President Bush has stated that all humanely possible will be done, but I find it very telling indeed that he and Laura didn't show up in Louisiana or Mississippi to hand out bottles of water as they did last year in his brother's state of Florida.

Will the people left behind in New Orleans be rescued, or are they to be in effect imprisoned behind an impenetrable wall of flood waters? Will the white folks left continue to "find food" while the black folks continue to "loot" food? Will George and Laura Bush ride in on a presidential flotilla offering bottles of water and an encouraging word? Will the news media don wet suits and snorkel to ferret out the next sensational "human interest" story? Will we see hordes of "gator wrestlers" and snake handles descend in their flat bottom boats to combat any floating reptilian armies? All of this and more, inquisitive minds desire to know.

NOTE: This writer is in no way making light of the disaster visited by Katrina, as a former resident of South Florida I have seen, as well as experienced the disparity regarding evacuation and shelter plans during this type of disaster. No one knows what is in store in the days to come for the people along the Gulf coast, we all need to send whatever forms of prayer we use, along with resources to try to alleviate their anguish.

You may contact Frank Pitz at fpitz76@hotmail.com.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Life's Necessities Grow Scarcer at the Superdome
NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 2 -- The concourse outside the battered Louisiana Superdome resembled a day-of-the-locusts panorama Friday morning: thousands of souls crying and begging and pleading for help.
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4:05 am  
Blogger Dave said...

So what, you're getting freakin' spam now? My friend Beth had a similiar situaiton with one of her posts recently. Technology sure is wonderful.

But, seriously, I think it must be said that without the intense and critical coverage of the post-hurricane situation by the media (who managed to get there while FEMA and the feds couldn't/wouldn't), I'm not sure we'd be seeing the progress we're finally starting to witness in the past 24 hours. I really think that CNN, MSNBC and, yes, even Fox News helped to shame the federal government into getting off their asses and doing the things that should have been done days before.

Remember when everyone was mourning the death of Peter Jennings as the true end of objective, public-watchdog journalism? I know that's how I felt, that it was become increasingly tougher to find mainstream journalists willing to call the government on their shit out of fear of being targeted by partisan groups or skittish advertisers? I think those days may be over, at least for the time being. Katrina and the aftermath has suddenly given everyone in the news media their balls back. Let's see how long it lasts.

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