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Tears for America

Massive failure on our home turf


The disbelief gave way to horrified reality, then to shame, then to fury. Still to come: boredom.

It happened to our party city, and to us. Not just the storm. Even more, its consequences: a rankling, growing outcry that people at the top have played politics with American lives here at home as well. Or that they're just plain stupid as well as craven.

The last time we saw footage of such nauseating effluent was when American troops tried to bring order to Sadr City, the shattered slum of Baghdad... back when Casey Sheehan was killed. Scenes of the Christmas tsunami weren't this demeaning.

This is America, September 2005. Not the Warsaw Ghetto. Nor the gulags. Nor the Beirut refugee camps. Thousands dead. A million dislocated.

By about Tuesday last week, we knew it was real, even if Washington was still in constipated denial. By Wednesday, we were grappling with the reality of death in the streets, and our stunned disbelief that government was really paralytic. By Thursday, we were getting angry. By Friday, we knew that Big Puffed-Up Government was not responding.

As always, the doctors and the nurses coped under conditions like those their Iraqi colleagues are so used to. Seven days, and counting, of snatched naps, operating MASHs in the downtown Ritz-Carlton and in the baggage-claim area of Louis Armstrong International Airport, but without even 1950s gear.

Civic obliteration like that we visited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just over 60 years ago... only created by water, not atomics.

The wraiths; hollow eyes, slack mouths. The corpses under carelessly flung sheets. People beyond exhaustion, beyond emotion, down to the gritty task of survival.

The people, there in the urban sump, and across the nation, consistently ahead of lumbering, lurching, impervious, dismal officials trying to look like just plain folk. Floundering openly when faced with a situation which they and their ilk created; which required the intelligence and "robust" action they so sadly, so obviously weren't up to.

Citizens refusing to accept waffling excuses about the totally bumfoozled FEMA. They forced regulation-bound government to do the obvious, like open that disused airbase, dammit. And why the hell wasn't the USS Bataan opened for business long ago?

There came one of those nearly miraculous first slivers of hope: a general whose name and heart rise from the bayous. Who tells his troops to keep their weapons pointed down, but also says they have recent experience of killing elsewhere, and are pretty good at it. The military emphasizes they're under civil authority: they bring a sense of sanity to the people in the mouth of Old Man River. The 82nd Airborne occupies the Latin Quarter. Tough Love.

That general, Honore, is the only leader who has a clue, apart from the stable-talking Mayor of New Orleans who lost it one day, and dared to tell the neatly-groomed upper-case officials they were full of bull-doody... live and unrehearsed on the radio.

And on the way to fury, we've learned admiration for the dignity of many African-Americans, so used to poverty; so hesitant, gentle, and unblaming in acceptance of their lot in unspeakable conditions. They didn't moralize. They didn't have to.

Sure there were marauders. People killed people in the Superdome. Cops turned in their badges. What do you expect when society breaks down? FBI sniper teams moved into the wards.

By the end of the week, the survivors were only slightly different, in living color, from those gaunt wraiths the GIs came upon at the gates of Auschwitz and Dachau and Mauthausen in the spring of 1945.

By the beginning of this week, Texas had too many refugees and was moving some on to other states. And nobody had begun to count the dead. Not seriously.

Out there in the rest of the world which we so often ignore in our supercilious way, there has been utter amazement at Washington's blathering incompetence... at Mr. Bush's initial, supercilious refusal to accept aid from abroad. And of course not from Castro; perish the thought!

I wonder... if I were OBL... would I let the U.S. perk in the deadly stew of its own devising, or help it along with some well-chosen explosions? Or maybe a vial of bacteriological agent?

Hell, Ecuador could invade SLO and Santa Barbara counties before Washington was aware of it, because the incursion wouldn't show on any of the fancy techno-screens they so love.

Finally Mr. Bush was persuaded to "inspect" the landscape for the cameras, was allowed to pose with some sanitized survivors and utter platitudes. But he couldn't hit the heroic note he achieved on the rubble after 9/11, even with the combined prodding of the worried Rove and Cheney and Dan Bartlett. He was simply too detached. This wasn't him. And of course no one expected he would actually go into The Big Easy swampland.

People, not just the pundits, began to wonder, increasingly audibly, if Katrina had exposed the administration to more searing scrutiny than it could take. By early this week, the chorus of criticism of senior officialdom had become thunderously harsh. Some saw the Administration's indifference as the tipping point in Mr. Bush's reign.

This is America, 2005... the land of hyped hypochondria. A warning to us all, to be interpreted as one chose.

Is Katrina enough to humble the Hummerites? Not the one I saw Sunday traipsing about in her winkle-pickers, her bare tummy heaving with the intellectual-challenge of gassing up.

For most of us, bar the terminally self-obsessed, this is a huge tug at the American conscience. In most cases, we have rapidly reverted to the goodness that underpins this broad and speckled land.

Those who have come out okay have been, as always, the unselfish, the helpers: the medics; the helicopter rescue teams; not the bland officials of various government niches, worried more about their political asses than actual accomplishment.

A word here for our eyes and ears. Some of the more squirrely newsies took to wearing body armor, which they figured would look good on their demo tapes. But then, there were the heavies: CNN's Christiane Amanpour and Nic Robertson, more familiar from Baghdad, now covering the New Orleans war zone. NBC's sweat-drenched Brian Williams shucking off his pomposity. Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, a former sportscaster, early on lancing the pomposity of smug, do-nothing leaders. And how we missed Peter.

Others who had to be there did creditable, human jobs: the writing of people on deadline in incredible conditions, who let their words spell out the horror in the sump of the Big Easy Superdome. The continued publication of the Times-Picayune under extraordinary conditions.

There has been something marvelous on display here: the bruised, battered, bloodied, humbled soul of poor and middle-class America, up against it, parched, starved, stinking, yet toughing it out... even if they couldn't smile... caught by wordsmiths and voices and, most poignantly by fine camerawork.

Last week, it seems to me, we came perilously close to anarchy and the encroaching of a lawless society while government diddled... We have responded, almost as if there were relief in us that we could brush aside the tawdry commercialism in which we wallow, and do something real, something good, for a change.

As is so often the case in America when the chips are really, really down, common sense and humanity have prevailed, in the nick of time. We, the people, have not been conned; we have begun to rally.

How long will Katrina's fury hold our attention? When will we get bored with tragedy and move on to other matters?

Now, as for Iraq... .

Bayard Stockton is a former news correspondent and lives in Santa Barbara. You can reach him at drayab@silcom.com.

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