[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Languages
Last Updated: Sunday, 4 September 2005, 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK
Viewpoint: New Orleans crisis shames US
By Matt Wells
Los Angeles

At the end of an unforgettable week, one broadcaster on Friday bitterly encapsulated the sense of burning shame and anger that many American citizens are feeling.

Downtown New Orleans, near the Superdome
Flood victims were left virtually to their own devices for days

The only difference between the chaos of New Orleans and a Third World disaster operation, he said, was that a foreign dictator would have responded better.

It has been a profoundly shocking experience for many across this vast country who, for the large part, believe the home-spun myth about the invulnerability of the American Dream.

The party in power in Washington is always happy to convey the impression of 50 states moving forward together in social and economic harmony towards a bigger and better America.

That is what presidential campaigning is all about.

But what the devastating consequences of Katrina have shown - along with the response to it - is that for too long now, the fabric of this complex and overstretched country, especially in states like Louisiana and Mississippi, has been neglected and ignored.

Borrowed time

The fitting metaphors relating to the New Orleans debacle are almost too numerous to mention.

First there was an extraordinary complacency, mixed together with what seemed like over-reaction, before the storm.

Flood victims walk the street in front of the Convention Center in New Orleans, 1 September
The city's hurricane shelters grew increasingly filthy and crime-ridden

A genuinely heroic mayor orders a total evacuation of the city the day before Katrina arrives, knowing that for decades now, New Orleans has been living on borrowed time.

The National Guard and federal emergency personnel stay tucked up at home.

The havoc of Katrina had been predicted countless times on a local and federal level - even to the point where it was acknowledged that tens of thousands of the poorest residents would not be able to leave the city in advance.

No official plan was ever put in place for them.

Abandoned to the elements

The famous levees that were breached could have been strengthened and raised at what now seems like a trifling cost of a few million dollars.

The Bush administration, together with Congress, cut the budgets for flood protection and army engineers, while local politicians failed to generate any enthusiasm for local tax increases.

Too often in the so-called "New South", they still look positively 19th Century

New Orleans partied-on just hoping for the best, abandoned by anyone in national authority who could have put the money into really protecting the city.

Meanwhile, the poorest were similarly abandoned, as the horrifying images and stories from the Superdome and Convention Center prove.

The truth was simple and apparent to all. If journalists were there with cameras beaming the suffering live across America, where were the officers and troops?

The neglect that meant it took five days to get water, food, and medical care to thousands of mainly orderly African-American citizens desperately sheltering in huge downtown buildings of their native city, has been going on historically, for as long as the inadequate levees have been there.

Divided city

I should make a confession at this point: I have been to New Orleans on assignment three times in as many years, and I was smitten by the Big Easy, with its unique charms and temperament.

But behind the elegant intoxicants of the French Quarter, it was clearly a city grotesquely divided on several levels. It has twice the national average poverty rate.

The government approach to such deprivation looked more like thoughtless containment than anything else.

New Orleans under water
It will be many weeks before the flood waters are cleared

The nightly shootings and drugs-related homicides of recent years pointed to a small but vicious culture of largely black-on-black crime that everyone knew existed, but no-one seemed to have any real answers for.

Again, no-one wanted to pick up the bill or deal with the realities of race relations in the 21st Century.

Too often in the so-called "New South", they still look positively 19th Century.

"Shoot the looters" is good rhetoric, but no lasting solution.

Uneasy paradox

It is astonishing to me that so many Americans seem shocked by the existence of such concentrated poverty and social neglect in their own country.

In the workout room of the condo where I am currently staying in the affluent LA neighbourhood of Santa Monica, an executive and his personal trainer ignored the anguished television reports blaring above their heads on Friday evening.

Either they did not care, or it was somehow too painful to discuss.

When President Bush told "Good Morning America" on Thursday morning that nobody could have "anticipated" the breach of the New Orleans levees, it pointed to not only a remote leader in denial, but a whole political class.

The uneasy paradox which so many live with in this country - of being first-and-foremost rugged individuals, out to plunder what they can and paying as little tax as they can get away with, while at the same time believing that America is a robust, model society - has reached a crisis point this week.

Will there be real investment, or just more buck-passing between federal agencies and states?

The country has to choose whether it wants to rebuild the levees and destroyed communities, with no expense spared for the future - or once again brush off that responsibility, and blame the other guy.


Do you agree or disagree, send your comments on the story using the form below.

It disgusts me to think that my 'brother and sisters' in New Orleans have been ignored and discarded by the US government like so much trash that no line the streets of this once beautiful city. I am embarrassed it took so long to get help to people only eight hours away.
Lara Tosh, Nashville, Tennessee

I don't blame anyone for the tragedies of nature
David Augustine, Mendham, NJ
This article is so wrong-headed, it is hard to even begin to criticize it in a short space, other than to say it is written by an anti-Bush foreigner who has little understanding of America. Bush was right: no-one could have predicted when this devastating storm would hit. I don't blame anyone for the tragedies of nature.
David Augustine, Mendham, NJ

I completely agree with the article. What has been going through my mind this past week is that the crisis did seem political, racial, and I am disgusted. It's unconscionable that after an entire coastline was just destroyed, while New Orleans began to drown, the President was making fundraising speeches in California on Tuesday. As president, elected to serve the people of this country, why didn't he stop everything and call out the help those people needed immediately?
Lori Thoma, Reno, Nevada

My sympathy to fellow Americans sufferings from this natural disaster. The most advanced nation on earth and unable to response soon. A political disaster too. Mr Bush: time to wake up and cut red tape. More action and less talk.
D Sharma, Antwerp, Belgium

Shame on anyone that makes this tragedy political, socio-economic or racial. The US Government, both Federal and local; and individuals, failed both before and after the storm to react in a timely organised manner. We need to fix it and we need to help the survivors, but we are not going to build a wall around coastal US to prevent a category five storm surge from causing damage. And in the land of opportunity and personal responsibility the individual is ultimately accountable.
Robert Buckley, Decatur, USA

This disaster did not have to happen
Howard Goldsmith, New York
I am ashamed to be an American. This disaster did not have to happen. Years of environmental damage to the gulf coast and building a city below sea level surrounded by water was a disaster waiting to happen. Now the clean up will cost untold amounts of money and the toxic stew of chemicals will pollute the gulf even more destroying precious fishing areas which were in trouble to begin with. The pictures tell the story bad planning, lack of vision and the fact that racism is still alive and doing well in America
Howard Goldsmith, Staten Island, New York, USA

I agree the article, but what most people from other countries don't realise about America is that for all the great things we do we do some really horrendous ones too. Most Americans don't realize that we have a lower class, despite it being so blatantly obvious. The tragedy of this Gulf State disaster is that it is has exposed just how poor those states are and how much they've needed help for decades.
Riley Gelwicks, Gainesville (Florida), USA

As a proud southern American your article is so far from the truth I don't even now where to begin. What I read is a liberal, European, elitist view of this absolute tragedy. Americans will help each other regardless of colour or social level. As for aid from other nations, I for one say leave it. We can and will rebuild the ravaged areas ourselves.
Tracie Dixon, Sand Springs, Oklahoma

The people of New Orleans deserve much better - but the responsibility begins with who they choose as their local representatives. Representatives that can get things done - not just blame others for a lack of progress. Local emergency planning is the responsibility of local authorities. Their job does not end with making sure the bars are open for the tourists.
Kendall Walsh, Port Washington, NY

I agree with all the comments made in the above article. I wonder what the response would have been if a similar problem had happened in "Miami Beach" America should ashamed
Enid Jewell, Ontario.Canada

I think one should not only blame G W Bush for having neglected so dramatically some States of the South, but also all former Presidents of the US. But as was said many years ago by a famous American economist: it's hard to try to produce at the same time guns and butter.
Robert Deossart, Wervicq Sud, France

I fully agree with this article. For the self proclaimed "most advanced nation on earth" to build a city below sea level, in an area subject to hurricane activity, and not make absolutely certain that the levees would not fail is massively irresponsible.
Roger Gamwell, Dubai, UAE

I think now America and Americans in general will learn to appreciate the problems of the 'developing world' they so easily dismiss disparagingly. Even so-called weak nations like Sri Lanka and India manage to routinely respond to natural calamities of similar and greater intensity. It is time America shook off its complacency and check how strong are its credentials as a free, equitable and prosperous country.
Haripriya, Delhi, India

Name
Your E-mail address
Town & Country
Comments

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.





BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
See the squalid conditions in New Orleans



RELATED BBC LINKS:

RELATED INTERNET LINKS:
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


PRODUCTS AND SERVICES

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific