One of the most egregious aspects of Hurricane Katrina was the utter breakdown of the social contract mandating the protection and care of the elderly and infirm. I never expected such a breakdown to happen in this country.
The fundamental inability of nurses and other health care workers to save their patients under these impossible circumstances represents an unimaginable horror. Not that many didn’t try. The sheer heroics were in and of themselves unbelievable— like the stories of staff who manually "bagged" (adminstered oxygen) and fanned overheated patients for hours on end, or the aide who ferried nursing home residents to safety as they were set adrift on their mattresses in the flood water. The unreal lengths that staff went to are difficult to fathom.
In the news media, attention focused on the looters and other law breakers, the rapists and the sniper thugs. The looters who looted out of necessity have been judged and absolved. The thugs who simply took advantage of the situation have been uniformly condemned. Isolated thug behavior should have been immediately stymied by an imposition of law and order.
The lack of order, and the total societal breakdown that ensued, gave permission for thugs to run amok. Conditions under which infants and elderly were left to die on the street acted like a big green light, ushering in total chaos. The focus thus shifted from a critical appraisal of the "uber" conditions that allowed for this perfect storm. Yet in order to prevent a repeat performance a critical look at these macro conditions are in order.
It outraged me that a catastrophe of this magnitude was allowed to unfold in my very own country. Not that it’s okay for breakdowns like this to happen elsewhere around the globe. It’s just that I used to see the suffering of other people in other lands as a reflection of the fact that ‘they’ had not yet reached ‘our’ level of social justice and human rights. There was an ideological ladder and the United States stood uncontested at the top.
Sure, there was a veritable "Third World" right here within our borders, but somehow it wasn’t as bad. It wasn’t as bad because the unfortunate people in this country were so much more fortunate than those in other countries, largely because the "macro" conditions for people in other nations were so much worse. Those in other nations had to live under corrupt government regimes run by crooks and cronies who stole from them and then lived high on the proverbial hog.
Such crooks and cronies didn’t care if the societal infrastructure (the buildings, roads, public works, schools, bridges, dams, etc) crumbled to the point of literally burying the populace, as long as their crony coffers stayed full.
In the year 2000 I visited Santiago, Chile and I saw first hand the long-term consequences of these corrupt values. Pinochet’s reign of terror had recently ended. In the town square, once proud buildings stood covered with industrial soot. It looked like a set from a movie, like the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes, leaning over, half-buried in sand.
The Catholic cathedral was literally crumbling, exposed beams assaulted church-goers who dared enter the sanctuary. Parkways were overgrown with dandelions, and the entire city reverberated with chaos. A desperate stray dog yelped in the confusion, but no one paid it any mind.
So this is what it’s like when a government ‘doesn’t care’ about the people, I realized. I shuddered to think what Denver would look like with it’s civic center crumbling and infested with weeds. Thank goodness for the value "we" place on civic life in the U.S., I thought.
The more I heard about the tragedies and travesties of the hurricane, the more disbelief I felt: This cannot be happening in my country. We don’t neglect a city’s infrastructure to the point of leaving an entire city vulnerable to that degree of devastation. We don’t leave our elderly and infirm to drown or die of dehydration in their hospital beds. We don’t abandon our citizens, leaving them without food and water, without basic sanitation. But then the cognitive dissonance sets in, because apparently we do. And we did.