Disasters usually bring people together. That made the reports of looting, rape, murder, and even attacks on rescuers after Hurricane Katrina so distressing – and so sociologically unlikely.
Turns out the good news is that the bad news was wrong. Christopher Shea reports that the worst stories – rapes in the Superdome, gunshots at a helicopter, carjackings in Baton Rouge by refugees – cannot be substantiated. The many murderers of the Big Easy took a holiday. Even the looting was largely people taking necessities.
Many have pointed out and lamented the racial difference in some news coverage – white people “found food,” black people “looted.” This is bad news about racial consciousness. But it can also be read, underneath, as good news about community. Most people in this dangerous disaster took care of themselves and those around them. They held themselves together, and went and found what they needed. I am confident that when the fuller story of Katrina is told, there will be many more stories of people sharing with the strangers around them and taking care of the weakest than there will be tales of depredation.
In fact, as I watched the interviews with trapped people from the Superdome and the convention center, from the many highway overpasses and isolated attics, I kept hearing family stories. Again and again they would interview a seemingly able-bodied person. I first wondered, “why are these people still there?” Were they stupid, clueless, or terminally feckless? The reporters’ questions sometimes seemed to carry the same assumptions. Yet as I listened to their stories, the most common refrain was, “I stayed to care for a vulnerable member of my family.” The mother with diabetes, the grandmother in a wheelchair, the sick babies, the uncle who needed dialysis.
At the time, these stories of sick relatives were told to show the desperate bad news of people who needed immediate rescue. But they are also part of a larger, better story: people who could have saved themselves put themselves in harm’s way to try to protect their needy kin and neighbors. The picture of the dead old woman in the wheelchair is very sad. But she, at least, had someone who pushed her from her home in the flood path to higher ground, where she had a better chance of survival. That wheelchair pusher could have walked him or herself right out of the city in the same time and with half the effort.
A few people did horrible things during the Hurricane – the nursing home owners who abandoned their charges to drown while they fled is the worst thing I have heard. But most did not. Most of the stories coming from New Orleans are of decent, even heroic people trying to save themselves and others.