Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Good News from New Orleans: The Crowds Weren’t Murderous, After All

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.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear that some of these stories might have been exaggerated to a degree or even fabricated altogether.

What I found very interesting was the reasoning offered up for the misbehavior during the news frenzy in the days following the hurricane, which seemed to range (in my observation) from simple victim-blaming ("Of course they're acting that way - they were too poor to get out and you know poor people are bad and lazy and will jump at any chance to act up") to pretentiousness ("Who cares if they're stealing stereos and tv's?They've never had nice things") to a bizarre form of imagined empathy ("You can't blame them if you haven't been in that situation" - as if murder and rape logically followed from home and family destruction). Then there was the interesting class-based view that implied that people who had been victimized by the establishment for so long were relishing the opportunity to, in effect, run what was left of the city.

I think those extreme views (even if the stories that elicited them were false) showed a lot of views people had about race and class that might not otherwise have come up.

That being haphazardly said, I'm excited you're blogging. Now your former students can get what we didn't get enough of in class - Westonian opinion.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the original reports were probably horribly overblown for the sake of ratings and I'm glad to see that it's not the anarchy that everyone thought.

I gotta throw this in, just because it's the elephant in the room anytime you talk about the hurricane. Was class an issue in the obvious failure to save the city? While I don't necessarily agree with Kanye West (who's new album in real, REAL good and should be aquired by everyone in whatever way they see fit) I do tend to think like that guy who writes the first article in the Leo every week (I forget whether it's Yarmouth or Ziegler. Which ever one is the leftest, I can never remember) who said (my paraphrase) One wonders if a hurricane hitting Hilton Head Island would cause a broken levee and utter devestation. It's a sad thing to consider, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't.

Anonymous said...

When the first reports started coming through I immediately thought of Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins. Should have written an op-ed about it. Somebody else did in today's on-line Wall Street Journal (http://www.emailthis.clickability.com/et/emailThis?clickMap=viewThis&etM

Jim Cobb, a really smart historian at the University of Georgia, wrote a nice piece for the New Republic on the regional aspect of all this. It's only available to subscribers, so I'll post it here:
Why did so many New Orleans residents refuse to evacuate before Katrina made landfall? Some pundits have chalked up this apparent foolhardiness to the apathy of an alienated underclass. Others have countered that many of those
who failed to flee the city simply lacked either the vehicular or
financial means to get themselves out of harm's way.

But there may be another explanation entirely. After all, down and out
New Orleanians were hardly the sole holdouts in the face of impending
destruction; similar stories unfolded throughout the devastated
Mississippi Gulf Coast. This suggests, to me at least, that there might have been something recognizably Southern about the public's response to Katrina. To
be sure, no group of Americans has been more consistently stereotyped
than Southerners, and as a member of that particular sub-species, I should be particularly hesitant to offer a regional take on what we have seen. Still, I can't avoid wondering: Might certain Southern cultural traits have played
a key role in persuading so many Gulf Coast residents not to flee their homes?

Emergency officials and members of our disaster-mongering media always
seem puzzled by the steadfast refusal of people in Southern coastal communities to evacuate even in the face of the direst warnings that both hell and high water are headed their way. This might be seen as simply more evidence that
we Southerners just aren't quite as smart as regular people, but I
believe there's more to it than that. Southerners aren't the only Americans who are attached to their places, but I certainly agree with Eudora Welty that Southerners not only care "passionately" about place but see it as the essence of who they are. As the sociologist John Shelton Reed has observed,
"Southerners seem more likely than other Americans to think of their
region, their states, and their local communities possessively, as theirs" and therefore "distinct from and preferable to other regions, states, and localities."

Instead of feasting at the great American banquet of virtue, success,
and plenty, for most of our nation's history, Southerners have watched it
from a distance as they struggled with the burdens of injustice, defeat, and poverty. Hence, it is not too surprising to find a tendency among them to see the world as an intractable, perverse, and often downright dangerous place from which it is always wise to expect more ill than good. In addition
to the anguish of separation from family and home, from Robert Johnson
to Hank Williams, Southern music has served up a surfeit of natural and
human disaster, suffered not silently but with a decided air of fatalism as well. As the Alabama-bred Drive By Truckers put it, "When it comes your time to go
... Ain't no use in thinking 'bout it / You'll just drive yourself insane."

A similar fatalism has pervaded Southern literature. Faulkner, for
instance,wrote about his people's admirable capacity to "endure well grief and misfortune and injustice and then endure again ... in order to live with oneself and die peacefully with oneself when the time comes."

Social scientists see the failure to take protection or preventive measures in the face of impending disaster as a correlate of poverty and inadequate education, but in the South this tendency has a religious component as well. Although regional differences in religiosity are shrinking, historically Southerners have embraced a fundamentalist skepticism about the impact of
human agency on a world where God's hand is in everything that happens.
If natural disasters are simply a reflection of divine will, efforts to avoid or even survive them are all for naught if God decides otherwise.

Take the example of Daniel Jackson. Having already suffered through
Hurricane Camille in 1969, Jackson chose to ride out Katrina, reciting
the twenty-third psalm until the flood waters began to recede from his Biloxi home. A former maintenance worker with a bad back, a bum knee, and a wife with cancer, Jackson, who is black, has $600 in the bank and no flood insurance. Despite all this, he assured a CNN reporter that he felt "blessed" and expressed confidence that the Lord would provide for him.

The tendency of some Southerners to stay put and depend on God's help,
rather than help themselves, may well have raised Katrina's death toll and complicated the relief effort. But it also reflected their gritty determination to live or die with an intense commitment to home,
family, and community intact. Faulkner surely would have understood.

James C. Cobb is Spalding Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Georgia. His most recent book is Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (Oxford University Press, October 2005).

Anonymous said...

Off the subject...

I ask that you address the Millennium generation's divergence from feminist protocol of the 70's, 80's and 90's. It is my observation that many people in my generation, despite our youth, desire to work in the "real world" for a limited period of time. Eventually, many of us, women in particular, want to return to the home, with multiple children and live the life of an at-home mom. Some of us, myself included, would prefer the option of working from home (God bless the freedom of broadband technology), but most importantly to be at home. Thoughts...

Gruntled said...

Rich people can get flooded, too. They are less likely to live in a bowl. But the flood appears to have started because a barge broke loose and smashed a canal wall. That could, indeed, happen anywhere. This is not the kind of problem that people battening down for a hurricane are primarily worried about. It would still have been better to get everyone out of the low bits of New Orleans, just in case, but I think class is not the primary issue here.

I do think that Southerners are strongly attached to place. This is also partly a class matter -- rootless cosmopolitans are found in every city and capital sink, including New Orleans, and have probably lived in other places like it before. They left before the camera crews arrived.

However, there is also, um, a redneck element to contend with, which I think is also greater in the South (though God knows there are rednecks everywhere). The coverage of the convention center showed people, mostly black, who couldn't get everyone out in time. The coverage of, say, Gulfport or Biloxi showed some people, mostly white, whose idea of hurricane preparation was to go upstairs with a case of beer to watch the show. CNN interviewed one family who realized that the storm surge was about to get to them on the second floor. Their Big Plan? Jump on to a floating shipping container and hope to hang on and bob to safety.

ancho and lefty said...

The big white elephant in this room is the media and its inability to remember basic journalism tenets and ethics. The blurring of politics, Holywood, and The so-called Press has created a situation where a sad majority of media outlets now feel they have to compete with Entertainment Tonight and other trash in order to turn a buck, while simultaneoudly appeasing the beasts of the political machine in order to stay alive.

And so, the coverage of New Orleans fell victim to media frenzy.

There was actually a report on-line about the NBC correspondent who did adequate duty in the Superdome--- because of his "great ratings" he is now pegged to be the ratings grabber from the other networks. Where is our media when they themselves are subjects of Holywood/entertainment articles?

In other news, I read (from here in Central America) that the US Media is now set to get tough with GWII, ending its unforgiveable lack of critical reporting since 9-11. I am fed up with all of it.

Integrity. Responsibility. Impartiality. Fact-checking.
Anyone ever heard of these? I learned about them in high school journalism class from Lynda Sue Umfress, born in Tupelo Missippi and transplanted by the Grace of God to Bourbon County High School.