The Wholesale Looting of the Gulf Coast

The brazen cruelty with which the government deprived the New Orleans area of funding it needed to rebuild wetlands and reinforce its long-threatened levee system is the place to look the very minute the last survivor is out of harm’s way (NewStandard, 9/1/05). But the simply reprehensible slowness of the emergency response effort should be the focal point of our outrage right now.

The government and media have tried to concentrate our attention on what appear to be anecdotal — and often unverifiable — stories about isolated incidents of violence, allegedly on the part of some surviving New Orleanians (NewStandard, 9/1/05). They insist on casting the incidents in the "established narrative" style hard-news reporters are supposed to reserve for overwhelmingly proven facts, and in terms that generalize the incidents such that they sound overwhelmingly representative of the situation on the ground.

For instance, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and other correspondents have cast the stories like so: "Snipers are shooting at emergency workers who try to evacuate hospitals." There are reports of one such incident — relayed by witnesses, but because of the uncertainty of such situations, by no means verified as strictly accurate perspectives.

The reporters have no idea the extent to which these incidents are actually taking place, and they actually admit as much – sometimes — after their initial onslaught of rumor and innuendo. To portray them as representative, while hours and hours of news footage shows no signs whatsoever of anything that could be called real violence on the part of civilian survivors, is truly indefensible.

Nevertheless, instead of posing hard questions to government officials on Wednesday – a full two days after the storm struck – about where needed relief was, correspondents and anchors repeatedly harped on whether the government should send in ground troops to "restore law and order." Almost as if on cue, the mayor and governor ordered police and national guard personnel away from search and rescue to rein in the civilian lawbreakers.

When the story of New Orleans became about the "monstrous" people taking inanimate objects from vacated retail stores, the media and state found themselves with a comfortable, familiar mission: reporting and governing in the interest of the wealthy.

Expose and prosecute the retail looters, lest the story turn to the wholesale looters…

Sure, they offered some leeway, at first, to those who restricted their non-monetary acquisitions to food and water — though a number of reporters couldn’t resist ranting against people who took clothing and shoes, wondering aloud why a young man might possibly need shoes or clean clothes in a flood zone.

But when people whose shitty, low-wage jobs were literally decimated and their homes wiped out caught a glimpse of merchandise they could not afford even in the best of times — how dare they lay claim to televisions and jewelry!

In doing so, we are informed, these civilian troublemakers are spoiling the emergency response and putting tens of thousands of their fellow New Orleanians in danger.

How dare anyone let greed put people at risk!

(Now, where again is that missing third of the Louisiana National Guard, with most of its heavy equipment? And where went that money that was supposed to fund Army Corps of Engineers efforts to build up those hurricane defense systems? We seem to have misplaced it around the same time we gave members of Congress and their friends whopping tax breaks and needed money for overseas adventures.)

The garbage that passed for journalism nearly all week, in the interest of fulfilling our society’s newfound, media-induced addiction to "breaking news" coverage, should be appalling enough. But the fact that authorities are using these anecdotal reports as an excuse for their sheer failure to respond in more than a barely helpful manner — and for consciously ordering the postponement of rescue and relief efforts "until law and order can be restored" — actually one-ups the bad reporting.

What we do know if we watch CNN or other news outlets is that tens of thousands of people are gathered as peaceful (if outraged) mobs in places that are safe enough for camera crews to film unscathed, yet nary a bottle of water or a first-aid kit had been so much as tossed out the side of a helicopter as late as Thursday morning.

The winds died down over the Gulf region on Monday. Why have emergency operations been so scarce and so ineffective that people are dying in the streets of New Orleans for lack of basic medical attention? How is it that "troublemakers" are to blame — let alone to be the focus of blame — when the troublemaking apparently began only after days passed with no sign whatsoever that relief was on its way?

Last I heard, snipers are barely able to obstruct killing operations in a single Iraqi neighborhood. How are they able to paralyze an entire citywide rescue effort?

When a government knowingly decides to let those without means to evacuate ahead of a natural disaster bear the brunt of the effects of a disaster – having offered no significant help before or after the storm passes — that government stands blameworthy for the entire outcome. The wind damage, the flooding, and yes any pillaging and violence that occur in the aftermath — to the extent these things impact the lives of people who were unable to help themselves, the government should be held accountable. Not just financially, but morally.

A moral accounting would include a reevaluation of the structures and leadership that fostered a situation of neglect and deprivation. A full evaluation of the government’s priorities, including the racial and economic motives that gave way to those priorities, is in order.

The sheer failure of official agencies at nearly every level warms the core of this colossal tragedy. Katrina gave days of warning — really a final warning following up years of doomsday predictions from climatologists. Lake Pontchartrain and its levees and the missing wetlands gave years of advance notice as well, by way of engineers and others sounding alarms to little avail.

Even those mystery snipers and roving gangs, if they really exist in any numbers, are a product — more than a cause — of the failure of those whose most basic job should be the safeguarding of the public. Sometimes scapegoats are morally reprehensible, but those who scapegoat are worse still.

Brian Dominick is an editor at The NewStandard, a regularly updated website with excellent investigative news. More of their reporting on Hurricane Katrina’s impact, and the federal government’s response, is available here