When Katrina’s flood waters had barely ebbed, President Bush was interviewed by ABC’s Diane Sawyer (on video below). In that interview, the President confidently reassured his audience about the future of New Orleans and about the lives of those who had been devastated by the storm. In the short run, Bush explained, “there is a lot help coming.” In the longer run, he added, there is “[n]o doubt in my mind . . . that New Orleans is going to rise up again as a great city. . . . This is a compassionate nation. It’s got a lot of resources at its disposal. And we’re going to help those people.” His closing remarks included this: “I just want the people of New Orleans to know that after we’ve rescued them, and stabilized the situation, there will be plans in place to help this great city to get back on its feet.”
At the time, the Nation’s focus was on the devastation and suffering. Furthermore, there was a strong dissonance created by the images and stories coming out of New Orleans that this was all about something more than just wind, water, and gravity. The faces of the most desperate – and there were many of them – seemed mostly poor and black.
Was this “racism” or something else? Could it be that the disappointing short-term response of FEMA (among other governmental institutions — federal, state, and local) or the longer-term policies that created this situation somehow revealed a less-than-colorblind system of policies and policymakers?
Could it be, as Kanye West asserted in his controversial and widely aired ad-lib, that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”?
It was with such images, dissonance, and accusations in the air that President Bush offered these comforting assurances during his speech from Jackson Square some weeks after the storm landed:
In the aftermath, we have seen fellow citizens left stunned and uprooted, searching for loved ones, and grieving for the dead and looking for meaning in a tragedy that seems so blind and random. We have also witnessed the kind of desperation no citizen of this great and generous nation should ever have to know — fellow Americans calling out for food and water, vulnerable people left at the mercy of criminals who had no mercy, and the bodies of the dead lying uncovered and untended in the street.
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[V]ictims of the hurricane and the flood . . . . need to know that our whole nation cares about you, and in the journey ahead you’re not alone. . . . And tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.
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Our . . . commitment is this: When communities are rebuilt, they must be even better and stronger than before the storm. Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. And that poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.
President Bush’s speech was well received. He said things that we all apparently wanted to hear. That was then, when suffering was raw and the sense that many innocent people had been victimized was widely shared. That was then, when many Americans were acknowledging the possibility that race — perhaps racism — played a causal force in that victimization. That was then, when President Bush’s vulnerabilities were just becoming significant.
This is now. Today, most of the devastation remains, but its cognitive and affective significance is much reduced. Our limited attention is focused elsewhere. The size of the challenge has only come to seem greater with time, perhaps leaving us even less willing to look at it closely. The possibility that “race” matters in this country has slipped back into comfortable (for many) realm of unspeakable taboo. And President Bush’s problems have only been amplified. With that, our attention, our sympathy, our resources, and our commitments have all, like Katrina’s waters themselves, largely evaporated.
So what has happened and what is now happening in New Orleans since the Katrina story lost its legs? That is the question that the Kaiser Family Foundation hoped to begin to answer in their recent study and report, Giving Voice to the People of New Orleans. According to the Report,
One year after Hurricane Katrina . . . , the Kaiser Family Foundation sent a team to the New Orleans area to conduct a comprehensive in-person survey. The aim of the project: to offer residents and the reconstruction effort a window into the changing shape and changing needs of the area’s population, and to give people a channel to express their views of the rebuilding process as it moves forward. Another critical purpose of this and all of Kaiser’s work in New Orleans is to help keep the facts about the challenges still present in the city and the surrounding region before the nation.
The 101-page report is too long and detailed to summarize well here. Instead, we have pasted below several of the Report’s more telling tables.
From such findings, the study’s authors concluded that
the survey points to the immense, immediate needs of the area’s population, particularly African Americans living in the city and particularly in the area of access to quality health care. As city and regional planners look to the best ways to provide for long-term success in the area of service delivery, it is worth highlighting the fact that many needs are pressing in the nearer term as well.
“This is a compassionate nation. It’s got a lot of resources at its disposal. And we’re going to help those people.” “We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.” (To review the entire Kaiser Family Foundation Report, click here.)