Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Race and Hurricane Katrina: two questions

Though I haven't written about it this week, I've been watching and reading the coverage of Katrina in New Orleans with a mixture of awe and horror.

Two quick thoughts for discussion.

First, have you noticed that numerous articles refer to the affected region as "third world" in its devastation? (Example: CNN) I always cringe when I read that.

But it's worth thinking about. Remember how after the Bombay flood last month (37.1 inches in 24 hours), there were numerous articles in the Indian media lamenting the city's inability to keep things running smoothly? Well, it doesn't just happen in India. Natural disasters happen to everyone; it isn't something to be embarrassed about. (Still, I wish they wouldn't use poorer parts of the world as a benchmark for the scale of the disaster.)

Here the authorities had access to good predictions for the storm, and were able to execute a large-scale evacuation of part of the population quickly. It would be great if monsoon rains could be predicted with as much accuracy. Does anyone know the science behind this? Why did no one have any idea that 37 inches of rain were about to hit the city of Bombay last month?

[Update: The fact that they had good predictions makes it all the more unbelievable that the post-Hurrican evacuation of New Orleans has been so inept.]

It is also worth considering that the area in question with Katrina is much less densely populated than Bombay (1.5 million people in the entire New Orleans metro area; compare to 20 million+ in greater Bombay).

The second issue circles around race within the U.S. If you watch the news footage of the post-Katrina rescue operations, you'll notice again and again that the people being rescued seem to be overwhelmingly African American.

There could be any number of reasons for this. One is, it's quite plausible to infer that more African Americans ignored or didn't get the message about the mandatory evacuation before the storm. Some folks may not have had the physical means to get out (i.e., a car & a credit card), or a place to go. Another factor might be topography: it's possible that many black neighborhoods are in low-lying areas (though I admit I don't know the New Orleans area very well). And finally, one shouldn't forget that in terms of sheer demographics, these areas as a whole have large African American populations.

I'm not trying to imply racism is afoot. Only this: the fact that blacks seem to have been disproportionately affected by this tragedy reminds us of the inequities that existed before the Hurricane happened. When we see folks being airlifted to safety, it should probably be on our minds that they were the ones who lived in the most vulnerable housing to begin with, and were also in many cases unable to think of leaving it behind.

I wish the mainstream media would take notice of this issue; thus far, though, I haven't seen anyone make reference to it. (Maybe after the shock of the storm dies down.) [Update: see the Slate article linked in the Comments below]

The mayor of Biloxi, Mississippi called Katrina "Our Tsunami", and judging from the pictures of Biloxi and Jackson, he may be right (though, as massive as the disaster is, it is still much smaller in scale than the Tsunami, which caused huge damage in eight countries, and left nearly 1000 times more people dead). But as with the tsunami, there is here a story behind the tragedy -- a pattern of ongoing suffering that existed before the storm -- that people aren't talking about.

* * *
This Boing Boing story doesn't help matters. Apparently, in some AFP photo captions, blacks who are carrying goods retrieved from closed or damaged stores are referred to as "looting," while white people doing the same thing are described "finding" the goods they're carrying.


Rash said...

the qn i want to ask is when engineering destroys natural barriers like marshes, is there anyone responsible for that? what price progress, and who pays it?

5:32 PM  
Amardeep said...

I've heard people say that overdevelopment and sprawl (i.e., parking lots everywhere) increases the likelihood of flooding because the earth's natural ability to reabsorb water in heavy rains is reduced.

But in this case, the entire city of New Orleans exists because of engineering to begin with. The bad flooding that is happening there is the failure of engineering (the levees) in a different way.

And 130 mile per hour winds and 30 foot storm surges will wreak havoc no matter what. Though I do consider myself an environmentalist, I'm not sure environmentalism is the answer here...

5:53 PM  
Shreeharsh said...

I was surprised that there was no mention of the Bombay rains in the American papers. But you're right - why weren't the weather authorities able to predict 95 cms of rain in Bombay, when here, we get storm warnings and most of them turn out to be accurate?

Btw - Jack Shafer in Slate has an article on the New Orleans race issue.

10:09 PM  
Amardeep said...


Damn, that is a good piece (thanks for giving us the link).

But notice -- my piece went up at 3:39 pm, while Jack Shafer's was posted at 4:22!

You heard it here, first.

Ok, just barely. And anyway, there's clearly something to it.

10:37 PM  
Saheli said...

I was surprised that there was no mention of the Bombay rains in the American papers.

it was the cover story on my copy of the Oakland Tribune, at least once.

11:09 PM  
not-so-idle speculation said...

Something else, I've read several ruminative comments about the tin veneer of civilization, and philosophical shrugs of the shoulders that the slightly Mad Max environment emerging in NO was to be expected.

It's a fallacy, these people are deluding themselves, what's happening in NO has a peculiarly American character, and is fuelled (in my opinion) by (a) the proliferation of guns among the public and (b) a less quantifiable but no less real gulf of resentment separating have-nots from the dominant haves.

So, you had a devastating tsunami that killed probably at least five times as many Tamilians as Katrina managed in the US. And in the aftermath you saw many Indian social character flaws displayed - massive corruption, hoarding of resources, further marginalization along caste lines - but no significant violence, no assault on supply lines and convoys, far far less chaos that you'd imagine in a "third world country."

And, better example, you have Mumbai in the deluge, where ten times more people were affected than by Katrina, and millions were stranded, and yet there was no looting to speak of, no additional violence. In fact, it's not too much to compare Mumbai solidarity during and after the deluge to what NYC experienced after 9/11, it was that big.

What's happening in NO is not to be expected, or simply what happens in disaster situations. IMO, it tells you something about the character of the place, the way society has evolved there, and it sure as hell points again to the absurdity and inherent dangers of American gun culture.

11:43 PM  
Anonymous said...

Makes sense.

The government of the entire nation is morally bankrupt, seems to make sense the citizens should follow suit and profit from misery.

1:48 AM  
Kush Tandon said...

Climate models used by Indian scientist are pretty shitty. They are teaming with UC, Boulder and NCAR people to fix the problem.

New Orleans has a significant African American population and they are the poorest, therefore, did not have the means to evacuate. NPR had people interviewed who no financial cushion to storm this disaster out.

2:15 AM  
Kush Tandon said...

Great post. Some of your questions can be answered by:

2:17 AM  
Sonia Faleiro said...

Amardeep, I've blogged about the Boing Boing report here:

I have two concerns. First, obviously, how two different news agencies saw what appears to be identical photos (in terms of what was being done) but described them differently because of the colour of the people involved.

So "looting" in the photo with the black woman, became "found" in the case of the white couple.

Also, I'm not sure whether one should use the word looting in such circumstances at all. Although that's what was being done, technically, should one still use such derogatory language when the circumstances are so unusual?

In other words, is it looting when a natural disaster has destroyed your home and your town, and taking food and not paying for it--say because the shop has been abandoned, the cash register is unmanned or submerged--is the difference between life and death?
I don't think so.

4:51 AM  
Amardeep said...


Yes, I really think the media should distinguish survival looting from commodity looting.

NPR and CNN are generally putting things in perspective, but the smaller ("local") news is still treating the looting as if that is New Orleans' biggest problem.

6:57 AM  
Kanya said...

Hi Amardeep,
Great discussion! I was also wondering how the media was going to nuance the race issue. On a related topic, I was a bit taken aback to see that the Indian print media, particularly *The Hindu* has not reported the extent of the disaster or the human loss caused by Katrina. I've only seen two small stories about Indians who were impacted, have volunteered to help, or about the impact on business. This seems utterly out of character for these newspapers. Have I missed something? Correct me someone who has been reading Indian newspapers recently.
Secondly, while I agree that the way society has evolved and the easy availability of guns, not to mention life-and-death circumstances could prompt a "looting" spree, I don't know if I agree with the comment by not-so-idle-speculation above that this is a distinctly US phenomenon. It is heartening to hear about the solidarity shown by people during disasters in India, and I firmly believe that more people are generous than not, I also recall instances of "looting" after train and plane crashes in India that were disturbing (e.g.people taking away jewelery from corpses etc). The all-out, roving, lawless post-disaster mob is firmly lodged in my imagination for some reason.

1:33 PM  
Manorama said...

Great post. It's disturbing to read about the suffering going on (disproportionately affecting people of color), in conjunction with the fact that Mr. Bush flew over it in a plane, said oooh that looks really bad, and flew away. I'm having trouble understanding why people who are in a shelter haven't had food and water for days, or why they can see buses lined up but none have come to get them (see here). And I do wonder how much of this is race.

2:26 PM  
Mahesh S. said...

Sorry if this is abit long, but I just wanted to put my thoughts up.

# On the question of looting, survival looting is justifiable for essentials. But what I see in NO is people walking away with "plasma TV's". That is commercial looting at it's very worst. IMHO
# One thing that Katrina proves to me is that people are the same everywhere, be it here in "progressive US" or "third world countries". In the face of tragedy there is always two sides to a human. The angelic side and the demonic side. The "angels" are the people who reach out and help people in need with whatever resources they have or can mobilise. But every coin has two sides. The "demons" look at it as an oppurtunity to make hay while the sun shines (or the city is in darkness in this case).
# India had the "caste" issue flare up during the Tsunami disaster relief. US has the "race" issue. The more countries progress, the more things remain the same *sigh*.

So when we here in the US read about tragedies in other countries we have to realise that there are angels there too, unsung, doing as good a job as any elsewhere and not be swayed by media accounts.

3:45 PM  
Michael Higgins said...

Hi Amardeep
I think there is probably a simpler explanation for why so many of the people who were flooded and stranded are black. I have heard that New Orleans is flood prone and that high risk areas are fairly well known (not a big assumption since it's hard to get home insurance in high risk areas). Poor people tended to live there. It is sort of like Bangladesh. And, of course, most poor people in New Orleans are black.

3:50 PM  
Vinay said...

Apparently, in some AFP photo captions, blacks who are carrying goods retrieved from closed or damaged stores are referred to as "looting,"
You might want to correct that, cause the photo showing a black guy was an AP (associated press) release and the photo showing the white couple was from AFP. It would be shameful to sensationalize the issue at this time (not to deny that there is racism).

4:37 PM  
Vinay said...

Here are the two links that has set the internet abuzz in case you still have doubts

5:09 PM  
docm said...

I feel this is clearly a question of caring about things only when they directly affect you..its like how sept 11 was big news when our indian WTC and countless other bombings were not worth even fine print!! Why should american medic think too much of the tsunami, let alone bombay floods.But I guess this is something we have to accept, unless someone comes up with abright idea to do something about it.
BTW,I think looting was also pretty much an issue in the bombay floods, though I dont know if it was featured only in Indian media.

11:24 PM  
manish said...

I am surprised by the lack of coverge in Indian newspapers. Katrina doesn't figure in the front page of the online edition of the TOI or the Hindu. The IE has one story at the bottom of the page. I've often considered the American press to be parochial but the Indian media too?!

12:25 AM  
Anonymous said...

You know, one of the scariest things is that the people who have been trapped inside their homes, and the people who are trying to get their way to safety in New Orleans, don't even know what OTHER dangers may await them.

We have the access to news and information, but these folks have been without any power or information available to them. All they know is that they are in a desperate critical situation, and no one is coming to help them. Unless they have already experienced it or heard about it, they have no idea that there are snipers, rapists or thieves, and will be totally unprepared for that to occur. As much as so many other things could have been predicted, I never in a million years would have thought that a bunch of opportunistic, egocentric piles of s*** would be roaming the city with guns, robbing, raping, and shooting at people at will, for seemingly no other reason than that they can get away with it.

In so many other national tragedies, it seems like people have come together, and the best comes out, yet this time, its just so diheartening to see that people who have gone through so much already, are further being subjected to unfathomable terror.

These f****** punks are out there trying to prove they are badasses and trying to take control of the city, and its just so completely pointless. I really hope that once things are back to normal that these fiolks are held responsible for what they have done.

I know many states employ a felony murder law, and I certainly hope these offenses can be deemed felonies. (By "felony murder," this means that if you commit a felony, and someone dies during the course of those actions, its considered murder. For instance, if someone were to rob a bank, and one of the bank customers keels over with a heart attack and dies, the robbers can be tried for the murder of the heart attack victim.)

Since their actions are holding up relief efforts, I think its fairly certain that people are going to die strictly because of this. People with pre-existing conditions who can't get medical attention or the proper medication. People are liekly to die from dehydration, suffocation, heat, exposure to the elements, drowning (you never know if another levy will break... any number of causes).

I realize that right now that its probably difficult to do anything about it, and much of this out of frustration, but it simply breaks your spirit to see all of this, and perhaps I'm speaking out of simple frustration, but god damn, I never expected things to turn out the way they did. The storm, and the subsequent flooding was bad enough. I never thought that people would be victimized to this extent afterwards. The stopries coming out of that convention center are absolutely horrific. People being raped, people held at gun point to rob them of their hurricane supplies and then having the f****** attempting to sell their water back to them for $5 a bottle.

Never thought something like this would happen. Even though I also live with the realities of the hurricanes, I never even imagined something like this.

12:31 AM  
TTG said...

I was particularly disturbed by the mentions of rapes and violence inside the Convention center.

A note on the bombay rains - they were told that they were going to get "a lot". Now Bombay gets "a lot" of rain every monsoon. But this time they got more rain than Cherapunji (wettest place in the world) , and more rain in 2 days than London gets in one year....

Now the thing is, a Hurricane is an easily identifiable feature on satelitte maps, e.t.c. How much water is in a raincloud and how long is it going to rain for? That's currently impossible to tell in advance. Sure you see clouds heading in your direction, which they do every monsoon, and you expect rain. But this was a freak incident, and there is no way of forecasting exactly how much rain will fall.

3:06 AM  
Dimitri said...

I just did some quick research and there seems to be no apparent link between New Orleans median household income and the devestation caused by Katrina.

There could be a link between car ownership and succesful evacuation. See for more info.

10:45 AM  
tilotamma said...

Hearing that N.O is suddenly like Bangladesh - a "fourth world country". Was it Chris matthews' comment?

11:09 AM  
docm said...

This post has been removed by the author.

2:38 PM  
Anonymous said...

the disparity in predicting weather in mumbai and no is easily understood, and was touched on by the ndian met people after the fact.

to get the super accurate predictions of the type no got, and other parts of the us get in hurricane season requires advanced doppler radars and weather prediction software. mumbai doesn't have it, its dept "couldn't afford" it. now they are apparently getting that stuff.

10:51 PM  
Abi said...

Just noticed that Kieran Healy has a couple of posts about this disaster, looking at the sociological dimensions. I am sure there will be more.

The second one, in particular has some statistics: e.g. N.O. population is some 66 % black, of whom some 26 % is poor.

8:54 AM  
Anonymous said...

This horrible storm did not pick a race to devour. Storms (many, many of them, predicted ones for that matter) come on shore year after year and it so happens a good majority of blacks live in that effected area. Do not make this about race. To do so only brings us back a century in terms of race relations. Yes, there were problems getting people out of the city. If more white people lived there you would see white people floating their possesions down the watery steets and standed. It took too long for them to get out, I agree. When the big earthquake hits California (which will come with no notice) you will see white people, and blacks, and a huge amount of Hispanics... beacause that's where they live. It's a fact. Keep it simple. WE have come a long way. And for this American, I care about people not skin color.

10:52 PM  
Anonymous said...

Abt Mumbai, remember that even though thunderstorm clouds were all over the city, the rain that fell was 37 inches in one part of the city and 2 inches in locations 10 miles away. This was a freak thunderstorm.

5:21 PM  
Anonymous said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:29 AM  
Amardeep said...

Thanks everyone for reading, and offering your comments on this troubling issue.

I'll have more Katrina stuff coming soon. For now, I think the time has come to close comments.

8:31 PM  

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