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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 September 2005, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
Katrina prompts charity not change

By Justin Webb
BBC, Washington

When Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans three weeks ago, the authorities were criticised for not doing enough for those least able to help themselves.

With the spotlight shining on the country's social and economic inequalities, our correspondent asks whether there will be pressure for change.

Workers clean debris scattered along the beach front by Hurricane Katrina in Biloxi, Mississippi
Hurricane Katrina reduced houses to matchwood

For millions of people on America's Gulf Coast it has been another miserable weekend, with Hurricane Rita tearing into buildings, snatching where it can at both property and life.

Three weeks ago I was in the Gulf states following Hurricane Katrina.

Speeding along a relatively unscathed motorway between the wonderfully exotic-sounding towns of Pascagoula and Biloxi, I switched on the car radio and heard the tobacco-stained drawl of a southern politician comparing the destruction in his district to that of Hiroshima.

Tasteless I thought. A typical example of American inability to see that suffering in other nations at other times dwarfs anything the average American ever sees.

Then we arrived in Biloxi, Mississippi.

The real question is whether there is going to be a revolution

There are streets where nothing stands, corners where one house or one wall has survived. Everything around it is matchwood.

The destruction is awe inspiring. After 10 minutes in the town, the Hiroshima comparison seems less jarring.

Reason for revolution?

Rita and Katrina have both been events of massive force, sweeping away an awful lot, but Katrina - because of the ghastly failure of the authorities to prepare and to rescue those at risk - is thought by some to have done more than physical damage.

Map of Mississippi

Bill Clinton is among many eminent Americans who wonder whether Katrina's biggest impact might be psychological, political.

The real question - putting it baldly - is whether there is going to be a revolution.

Will the American social and economic system - which creates the wealth that pays for billionaires' private jets, and the poverty which does not allow for a bus fare out of New Orleans - be addressed?

It has been tinkered with before of course, sometimes as a result of natural disasters. There were for instance plenty of buses on hand for this week's Rita evacuation.

But the system's fundamentals - no limit on how far you can fly and little limit on how low you can fall - remain as intact as they were in the San Francisco gold rush.

'Infant welfare state'

In the book of From Our Own Correspondent dispatches that marks this programme's 50th anniversary, my illustrious predecessor, Charles Wheeler, wrote that one of the tragedies of the Vietnam War had been, as he put it, "the dismemberment of America's infant welfare state."

Advertisements for transportation and jobs at the Houston Astrodome
Fellow Americans opened their homes and their businesses to help hurricane victims

"The war", he said, "stopped social reform in its tracks and today, with the budget deficit huge and growing, there is no prospect that a windfall of money released by the war can suddenly be applied to the needs of the poor in the cities."

Charles was writing in 1973. The US did recover. The economy was rescued. Money was made in very large amounts. But the poor still did not receive that windfall and they were never going to.

Will my five-year-old daughter Martha - who wants to be a broadcaster, she says, because she likes shouting at people - be writing in 50 years time for the 100th anniversary edition of this programme that she lives in a workers' paradise; that the infant welfare state that Charles referred to has come to pass?

I doubt it.

Giving nature

My children attend the same school that Charles Wheeler's daughter Shereen graced in the early 1970s.

In the last few weeks my e-mail inbox has been filled with earnest messages from fellow parents about places we can give money to victims of Katrina, drop off teddy bears we no longer want, dispatch clothes for which we have grown too fat and so on.

Dave Unruh was one of the numerous volunteers helping to clear debris in Biloxi
Many are giving their time as well as their money

No e-mail in those days of course, but I bet Charles got parchment scrolls, or whatever they used then, with lists of good causes to which he could contribute.

Charity is part of the warp and weft of American life and it is telling that Hurricane Katrina has encouraged an outpouring of giving on a scale never seen before.

Americans are cross with the government and disappointed with the response from Washington, but they have not sat on their hands and waited for the government to sort itself out. Much the opposite.

Americans have given with unbridled enthusiasm and generosity.

Is that not something governments do?

Americans do not think so and never will.

This is unquestionably a source of strength and spine in troubled times, but boy does it put a dampener on revolution.

Charity ameliorates it, softens blows, pours oil on troubled waters. It does not lead to social change.

Inequality is a part of American life and so is self reliance. Nothing I have seen in the last few weeks alters that.

American government is a mess. American bureaucracy and red tape is a national shame. American political clout around the world has been reduced by the Katrina fiasco.

But in Biloxi three weeks ago I watched a man with a chainsaw and two handguns beginning the process of rebuilding his house.

He will be joined by others after this weekend's devastation. They represent an America that Charles Wheeler would recognise instantly, and even now after the flood, is little changed.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 24 September, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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