Among the letters read on air today during NPR’s Morning Edition program was a letter from an Arizona correspondent objecting to an NPR story that cited the disproportional effects of hurricane Katrina on people of color and people of low income. He wrote: New Orleans is a sandcastle built at low tide … The storm did not discriminate on the basis of race or class.
Absolutely right. The storm did not discriminate. People discriminate! And discrimination did lead directly to greater suffering in the aftermath of the storm among people of color and people of low income. Poverty means you live in homes less ready to withstand the damaging effects of wind and in places less protected from the damaging effects of water. Poverty means when they say Get out, you don’t have the means to get out or a place to get out to. Poverty means when disaster does strike you have fewer resources with which to mitigate its effects, fewer resources with which to rebuild your life. You don’t have health insurance, homeowner’s insurance, savings accounts.
Poverty means when help is mobilized, you aren’t high on the priority list. A classmate of mine who works for the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta noted that Charity Hospital, a large New Orleans hospital serving the low income community, was not evacuated until two days after their generators ran out of gas. He writes:
- The flood forced them to retreat vertically, crowding the patients into the upper floors. After the generators ran out of gas, around day 3, the mechanical ventilators and dialysis machines also quit. They tried to ventilate the patients who needed it by hand squeezing rubber bags attached to their trache tubes by hand; a number of the patients died. Patients who needed dialysis also died; there is no way to do that without electricity. The staff faced a new and awful problem – what to do with the growing number of corpses. The morgue was out of commission, the hospital wards were overflowing. They decided they had no other option than to float the dead out into the flood waters. It hurt like hell, but they saw no other choice … They had to focus on saving the living as best they could. I do not blame them. I still cannot fathom what delayed the rescue effort for 5 days, but I think we as a nation have to find out, if we want to salvage our membership in the civilized world.
Meanwhile, high priced Ochsner Clinic Hospital was evacuated almost immediately …
It is our shame that we ignore the devastating effects of poverty among our own neighbors until something like Katrina “lifts the covers” for a moment and forces us to look. It is our shame that we support programs and elect leaders that protect our own interests rather than the common interest. It is our shame that our hearts are moved by the specter of a great natural disaster, but unmoved by the great unnatural disaster that plagues our nation every day.