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.

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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.