• Poor, black and stranded
     | September 04,2005

    Many don't own a car, and some who did couldn't scrape together the money for a tank of gas.

    Many of them had to work over the weekend, when thousands of better-off residents were crowding the I-10 evacuation route out of New Orleans.

    Some were reportedly waiting for government checks due on Sept. 1, four days away.

    "No funds," one 41-year-old woman surrounded by four young children told the New Orleans Times-Picayune when asked last Sunday why she was seeking shelter at the Superdome.

    Some were old, some were infirm, and some were homeless. Most of them were also African-American, and the vast majority came from the poorest neighborhoods in a poverty-plagued city.

    Today, they are the stranded and the desperate.

    And as a nightmare of biblical proportions in the hurricane- and flood-ravaged city continues to grow more hellish by the hour, Americans are beginning to openly wonder what the New Orleans disaster is telling us about class, and to some extent race, in our society.

    "So many of the people who did not evacuate, could not evacuate for whatever reason," former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial told NBC's "Today" show Thursday. "They are people who are African-American mostly but not completely, and people who were of little or limited economic means."

    What's more, many are starting to ask why — with mounting evidence that the below-sea-level metropolis might not survive a Category 3 or stronger hurricane — there was no plan for getting New Orleans' poorest residents out of town.

    When the Crescent City went through an evacuation — and a near miss — with last year's Hurricane Ivan, critics complained about poor traffic management for those who tried to leave by car, as well as the fact that so many in poorer areas didn't leave at all.

    For those who could drive, local officials developed a new counter-flow traffic plan that worked much better for Katrina.

    For the estimated 134,000 New Orleans residents without vehicles, the city produced a DVD that was sent out to churches and community groups, urging them to leave town but admitting the government could not take them.

    "You're responsible for your safety, and you should be responsible for the person next to you," local Red Cross executive director Kay Wilkins explained to the Times-Picayune six weeks ago.

    "If you have some room to get that person out of town, the Red Cross will have a space for that person outside the area. We can help you, but we don't have the transportation."

    Ironically, the Red Cross has run a network of shelters in New Orleans in the event of hurricane warnings. But it decided several years ago not to open them in the event of a Category 3 or stronger storm because it was more important to get people out of the below-sea-level area — despite the lack of any organized system for transporting them.

    Indeed, as Katrina bore down on New Orleans last weekend, Mayor Ray Nagin marshaled a fleet of city buses — not to take the city's poor out of town but to the large shelter at the Superdome, where civil order would fall apart as the week progressed.

    "Keep in mind, a hurricane, a Cat 5, with high winds, most likely will knock out all electricity in the city, and, therefore, the Superdome is not going to be a very comfortable place at some point in time," Nagin warned last Sunday. "So we're encouraging everyone to leave."

    "It's almost as if the planning stopped at the flooding," said Craig E. Colton, a geography professor at Louisiana State University, wondering as many have at the lack of foresight.

    Compounding the problem in New Orleans is that those with the least means to evacuate happen to live in the most flood-prone neighborhoods.

    Colton — an expert on environmental justice — said that, historically, the poorest groups have lived in the low-lying areas, starting in the 1830s when well-off whites — and their slaves in some cases — built homes on higher ground near Mississippi River levees, while Irish immigrants lived near Lake Pontchartrain at sea level.

    Since the 1890s, those lower areas have been largely African-American — most notably the 9th Ward, where the worst flooding occurred. Overall, the city is 67 percent black.

    "There's a saying out West that water flows toward money, but in New Orleans it's really the reverse, that water flows away from money," Colton said.

    And New Orleans is one of the nation's poorest cities, with some 30 percent below the poverty rate.

    Benigno E. Aguirre, a professor in the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, said that New Orleans is not unique when it comes to the poor bearing the brunt of disasters.

    "One of the patterns we see is that disasters are not random in their effects, that, instead, certain segments of the community are more vulnerable," Aguirre said.

    Ironically, in the early part of the week, few of the TV journalists covering the story mentioned what was obvious from their video, that most victims in New Orleans were poor and black. That started to change late in the week, after a widely circulated story on Slate.com by its media reporter, Jack Shafer.

    "When disaster strikes, Americans — especially journalists — like to pretend that no matter who gets hit, no matter what race, color, creed, or socioeconomic level they hail from, we're all in it together," he wrote.

    But they don't seem to be pretending in Katrina-battered Mississippi, where a Reuters article Thursday suggested that class resentment over the unequal effect of the hurricane was growing among the displaced.

    "Many people didn't have the financial means to get out," Alan LeBreton, 41, an apartment superintendent who lived on Biloxi's seaside road, now in ruins, told the news service. "That's a crime and people are angry about it."

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