Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Black and White and Red All Over

It had to be Southern California, didn't it.

It figures that the first Biblical plague-level natural disaster to descend upon this country since Hurricane Katrina would happen in a place where the contrasts between the two events could be so pronounced in every possible way.

The sunny paradise of affluent San Diego and Orange County versus the oppressively humid swamp of impoverished New Orleans.

Majestic hilltop homes versus shotgun shacks situated well below sea level.

Powerful celebrity governor Arnold Schwarzenegger versus ineffectual frump Kathleen Blanco.

Cool efficiency versus utter chaos and corruption.

Quick response versus outright neglect.

White versus black.

Fire, as opposed to water.

There quite literally couldn't be two situations more diametrically opposed, and yet we have no choice but to group them under the same banner -- the one which rightfully recognizes both as catastrophic national emergencies requiring any and all effort we as a nation can bring to bear against them. In each case, there are people suffering who need our help -- ours and the government charged with protecting and aiding us in times just like these.

But once again, such noble, academic pronouncements do little to quell the nagging questions that claw at the inside of our skulls as we watch the organized evacuation procedures, the calm and rational reaction of the victims -- as well as the care and compassion with which they're being treated -- the lightning-fast federal mobilization, and the outpouring of national support, all in response to the devastating wildfires in Southern California.

When compared with Katrina, it's simply night and day.

Anyone looking for a simple answer as to why is either painfully ignorant or likely looking to further a political or social agenda; there in fact are no easy answers.

I admit that I'm counting the seconds before an Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson -- and who am I kidding? It would be one of those two or no one at all -- begins grumbling about the response to the Southern California wildfires and how it just proves once again that the rich and white are attended to in times of crisis while the poor and black are left to die; how those who can easily provide for themselves are still given a governmental leg-up while the underprivileged are exterminated via attrition.

Still, would this argument be valid?

And what about America's dependable cadre of blowhard bigots? It's only a matter of time before the usual suspects on the far right point out that, so far at least, Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego -- nexus of the current evacuation effort and temporary home for almost 15,000 refugees -- is the picture of efficiency and cleanliness; while it took less than twelve hours for the supposed savages bottled up inside the Superdome to turn it into a nightmare of vandalism, robbery and rape -- essentially, a ghetto.

Would there be any validity to this argument?

F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

Applied in one way: the underprivileged and disenfranchised victims of Katrina -- most of whom were black -- were indeed abandoned undeservedly by a government that simply didn't care about them; while the reaction of those same victims was at times reprehensible and seemed to confirm the worst kind of preconceived notions about their penchant for victimization and lack of civilization.

Applied in another: the affluent and middle-class victims of the Southern California fires -- most of whom are not only white, but represent a powerful voting bloc -- are being cared for in the most effusive ways possible; while there's little doubt that many of those same victims had both the means and the opportunity to do for themselves all along and will likely have little trouble rebuilding what was lost, should they wish to.

Again though, at the core these two scenarios -- these two disasters -- are the same; at least they should have been.

In a perfect world, the local, state and federal response to Katrina would've been as swift as the response to the fires -- and the calm and organized reaction of those who found themselves at the center of the fires would've likewise been on display by those facing the trauma of Katrina.

But obviously, it's not a perfect world.

Which is why we're left with such a painful contrast, and more questions than answers.


Anonymous said...

Interesting comparison. There are some points I think you're leaving out, though. First, FEMA and the government have learned a hell of a lot, especially on the PR side, since Katrina. Even if they look busy and do nothing (which having water dropping planes that can't fly in the high winds we had essentially is), they would look better than they did in New Orleans. Also, the population that is being affected by these fires also has a large contingent of Hispanic and Asian Americans. It's not like this is Laguna Beach burning. Lastly, a lot of the homes affected are the mountain areas of the inland empire (Grass Valley) or rural outposts around Lake Arrowhead (not seasonal homeowners). These people are not bathing in wealth. They are by no means living in poverty but they're not Rockefellers either. You do bring up some good points and raise some very valid questions that I have no answers to. The discussion just has to be more than black and white and rich and poor, however. Sorry if I am overstating the obvious. Good to have you back posting Chez.

Anonymous said...

Can I make effort here?

The complete corruption and ineptitude of New Orleans' governmental and political response systems, concomitant with the lower standard of living both finacially and educationally ...
will give you Katrina.

The utter sophistication and able governmental authorities together with a middle (common sense) to higher class standard of living both financially (whether in Solana Beach or Jamul) and an educated populace will give you our proper response to this tragedy.

Can I also say the Federal government dared not to fuck this one up.

VOTAR said...

Didn't you get the Fox News Alert memo?

These brush fires were set by Al Qaeda.

Captain Babypants said...

I've been thinking something very similar for the past couple of days. I was waiting for someone to vocalize it properly.

Should've known it'd be you.

Suzy said...


Thomas said...

I think the true test is going to be in the recovery effort. There are STILL people waiting for FEMA relief — legitimate victims; not hooligans on looting sprees or people using their FEMA-issued bank cards for strip clubs and booze. Old men and old ladies. Disabled. Discarded. Disenfranchised.

It will certainly be valid to say it's a black vs. white or rich vs. poor thing if the federal government manages to magically rebuild Southern California so it looks like nothing happened (and in record time no less).

And how well-behaved do you think those affluent middle-class whites are going to be if Uncle Sam mustered the balls to tell them to wait in line — that they've got to pay for a war and the Katrina victims before California sees relief money? Hypothetically, speaking of course.

girl with curious hair said...

I thought of the contrast as well when I was trying to sleep the other night. Perhaps part of it is due to an awakened sense that this government won't/can't help anyone (I panicked more when I saw Chertoff on TV)and we have to help ourselves. I know so very many people who opened their homes and resources to perfect strangers. But realistically, the other part has to do with the affluence of the residents here--and they can afford better everything for times of emergency. That and the fact that SD (County) is heavily Republican and military. Even if nothing could have been done to stop the fire for almost 24 hours, politicians were here making promises. There was a show of action/strength even when there was nothing that anyone could do. They couldn't very well eat cake and strum guitars while a city with a huge Marine and Navy population waited for something to happen.

Having barely been touched by this, I am grateful for all of the resources--regardless of where they came from. But it does make me angry to know that not everyone in this country is afforded the same support. After all, the people in the rural areas go through the same thing almost every year. It's not like they don't know the risks, but no one is blaming them for building houses and landscaping in fire-prone areas like the residents of NOLA were.

Manny said...

You forgot to mention the frequent power outtages. How am I supposed to masturbate when my DVD player shuts off every 5 seconds? And yes, I'm completely incapable of taking anything seriously.

Blade said...

Actually, there are some significant differences..

The rich, and the smart, both got the hell away from Katrina before it got there, leaving the dumb, and the poor, there.

The wildfires, they are affecting everyone equally, the rich, the poor, the black, the white, the Hispanic, the Asian, etc.

No one got three days worth of warning, at least not until after it had become an epidemic level threat for three days, and had time to get way the fark out of SD.

The only people left in New Orleans were the poor, the dumb, and the too stubborn to leave (see also, dumb). Everyone was left in San Diego.

Also the type of threat is vastly different. 90% of the infrastructure in San Diego is still functional (at least until recently, I had heard that their power system is being threatened now), whereas in New Orleans NOTHING was left functional.

About the only similarities between the two situations is that they are both natural disasters, and that a giant stadium is being used as a shelter.

Other than that, they are utterly different.

Doesn't play well with others said...

Thank god (or whoever) that someone else sees the potential uproar that this could cause. The first news report I saw saying that this is the biggest disaster/evacuation since Katrina, followed by clip after clip of calm evacuees commending the government for their kindness and efficiency made those same thoughts spring to my mind. How long will it be before someone starts pointing fingers? I know, as many people have pointed out, that it is not as simple as black and white or rich and poor, but that won't stop certain people *cough cough* Al Sharpton *cough* from using it as an opportunity to cry preferential treatment. It's only a matter of time...

Anonymous said...

One last thought from me, and that is the Federal contribution to the recovery, post-firestorms, if any, will be minimal. Most if not all people have adequate amounts of insurance, and their homes that burnt will be rebuilt quickly. A month from know, hopefully, California will say 'what fires?'

Its nice being middle class and honest, and not looking for hand-outs albeit, victms still.

White Girl said...

I used to live in San Diego. I've been on the phone with family and friends out there as much as possible all week.

The damage to the rich, white folk was not nearly as extensive as the damage to the poor Mexicans who barely had anything to start with. The only difference between the mexicans and the NOLA residents is that no one will even hear about Mexicans' suffering. They have no voice in this country.

And for the NOLA residents, it's hard for people to feel bad and be eager to help a community full of criminals. I know, slap on the wrist for my "generalizing, racist" comment.

britta is an asshole said...

as shameful, embarrassing, and totally ineffective the response to hurricane katrina was, it's not fair to compare it to the efficient and speedy response to the wildfires in southern california. we have large scale fires here every few years followed by the inevitable mudslides a couple of months later. in other words, we've had lots of experience dealing with this.

on another note; i don't think that rich pricks in malibu should be able to dip into FEMA money to rebuild a house that was stupidly built in the middle of indigenous flammable brush, plants, and trees. those people are asking for it, just like the people in new orleans who were told to evacuate several days before the hurricane and chose to stay. on a personal level, i feel terrible for the people affected by these tragedies, but in the grand scheme of things, i think that it's just natural selection at work.

Jennifer Sulkin said...

I was going to write this. Then you did. Thanks for saving me the effort! I will now go reinvent the wheel. =)

Then again, if I was going to post this, and you did, and you are smart, and I am smart, maybe this post is simply the logical result of what smart people are thinking about this situation. Hmm.

Swami Dearest said...

It's not over until all the insurance checks are cut.

In my little rural (read: poor) corner of Northern California, with political clout practically nil, we've had our share of devastating fires in recent years. Not on the level we're seeing in the southlands, of course, but devastating still. The emergency crews responded immediately, heroically, and efficiently, as always. The helicopter tours by state politicians were in place, of course. The speeches were made. And the people waited, many for YEARS, for insurance settlements.

Insurance is the great equalizer.

Anonymous said...

a community fulla criminals "white girl"? I see you're all caught up on your sweeping generalizations. You obviously think New York is white-only (like Seinfeld taught us) and us blackies love koolaid and the ghetto (just like the Evans family on Good Times)

I believe it's closer to "giveemhellharry" idea that it stems from the notion of corporate damage control, as well as the green and voting strength of the communities involved. The response to Malibu burning (which is right up the road from me) forced the corporations hand with San Diego.

At the end of the day it's a business being ran by businessmen/women that makes decisions in accordance with the business equation. Whether black, white, green or mauve money is invested in this equation based on the return. This is the reason I believe the corporation drug (and continues to drag) it's feet in New Orleans: they were trying to find the proper amount of PR investment they could make, meanwhile they had to act quickly because of the weight the communities affected in SoCal carried.

Much like when they were fear-mongoring us about terrorism not that long ago. Even though they wanted us to be afraid of biological/chemical threat, the government would not invest any money through local or federal to equip us with the necessary means to survive an attack. Quite simply because the acceptable loss is less expensive then the $ it would take to ensure our survival.

Reminds me of the old videos of kids getting under there desks to "protect themselves" from bomb attacks, ensuring the wooden desks would burn them quickly and efficiently.

On a side note:

Chez, why haven't you touched on the North American Union and the Amero yet? seems right up your alley

& it's good to see you back my friend...


White Girl said...

Like I said, slap me on the wrist for my generalizing and racism, but the actions of po' black folk speak for themselves. Especially in times of crisis. New Orleans was a prime example. I'm not trying to prove a point. Certain people prove it everyday.

namron said...

This morning, on your show, the cute little anchor did her stand up on scene at Qualcom. Visible in the deep background was a hand- lettered sign reading "Medical Station." Below that sign were two other signs. One read "First Aid" and the other read "Massage." Had I viewed her segment without sound immediately upon my awakening from a 6-month coma, I would have known she was in Southern California.

(Incidentally, do you think your anchor would be interested in a relationship with a gainfully employed, college-educated, 60-ish white male? Ask her for me and get back to me.)

medic said...

Now that Brownie is involved again we'll see him do a hell of a job and save face

Anonymous said...

The two circumstances share little similarities besides the fact that they are both large scale natural disasters that have displaced a significant number of people. To logically compare them, apples to apples, would be difficult. However, this won't stop the usual blabbering heads from trying to make a racial and/or class issue out of the way the fires and Katrina were handled.

In the thread, a number of people have mentioned differences between the two situations. One of the first to come to my mind was financial resources at the state level. California is one of the largest economies in the world. the state has access to a considerable tax base. Louisiana wouldn't know what to do with a decent tax base if it sat on their face. The state and local government is notorious for their lack of fiscal responsibility. LA receives more funds in the form of Army Corp of Engineer grants than any state of the union, including the much bigger and more populated CA.

Other commenters have mentioned the regularity to which these wildfires occur in So. Ca. So state and local governments and the various services have established operating procedures on how to handle these situations.

Devastating hurricanes, at the Katrina level, happen every couple of decades. The last biggie to hit NOLA was Hilda, I think, in 1964. That's at least two generations separating the two storms. Plenty of time for people to forget, for people to not bother to prepare for another devastating hurricane. In the years preceding Katrina, every hurricane that came through the Gulf was feared to be The Big One that would do NOLA in, but every time the city mercifully dodged the bullet. The city leaders continued to let the good times roll and made no attempt at shoring up their city's defenses nor creating viable disaster action plans.

Finally, these wildfires have been raging for some time, and if you watch their course, you can see if you live in the path and need to be proactive. The post-Katrina flooding caught people totally off guard. honestly, I can't blame them entirely for panicking, those poor should who wouldn't or couldn't evacuate. Faced with almost overnight biblical floodwaters, I'd probably freak and do something completely irrational like climb into my attic and get stuck.

Anyway, my point being that while the events are far more complicated than the grumblers and "blowhard bigots" you mentioned will stir the pot it certainly won't stop them from trying to take up this cause (much like they did the flawed Jenna Six legal kerfuffle)for the attention. And there won't be any shortage of people right behind them nodding and cheering.

Thanks. Now I'm depressed.

Harris said...

Uh, you realize that most of the stories about the horrors in the Superdome where found to be untrue, right?

Chez said...

Many of the absolute worst stories of what went on inside were exaggerated initially, but make no mistake -- my network had people on the inside through the entire disaster (as well as inside the convention center); there were a lot of really awful things that went on. There were even a few incidents that, believe it or not, actually didn't get reported.

Randy said...

I'm a resident of the NOLA area who fled to Houston in advance of Katrina. I watched the collapse of modern civilization in my city from the air-conditioned comfort of a hotel room.

IMHO, there were systemic failures at all levels of government, from local to federal. In 2001, the Times-Picayune ran a series of articles predicting almost exactly what happened with Katrina--a sociological disaster as much as a natural one, with thousands of people who didn't have the option of leaving stranded in their homes or at the Superdome. Yet the local powers-that-be made no real plan beyond gathering people at the Dome. Nobody can say they weren't warned. One of my most right-wing Republican friends asked, "what are they supposed to do, die?" Like I said, the folks who ended up left behind simply didn't matter to TPTB.

I got the impression during Katrina that the underlying issue was that the mostly poor, undereducated, African-Americans left in the city simply don't matter to the local powers-that-be, whether those powers be black or white. Race, class, and power are all mixed up in New Orleans, and rich black people have as much in common with poor black people as I have in common with the members of the Newport Yacht Club. As the masses gathered in the fetid Superdome and the virtually unguarded Convention Center--and as the looting rampage continued unabated--Mayor Nagin and his entourage were ensconced in a hotel room high above the city, waiting for someone to come in and save the day.

The state goofed by relying on the city for an evacuation plan. Things were actually managed slightly more competently on the state level, though that's not the impression most people got. For instance, the State Police efficiently managed a massive evacuation of the area, and did it far better than the Texas authorities did a few weeks later when Rita neared the coast. However, that doesn't excuse the lack of a serious plan for getting people out of New Orleans when it was clear the city didn't have one. It also doesn't excuse the Governor's thoroughly inept oversight of the federally funded Road Home and GO Zone Programs.

Which brings us to the Bush Administration. W. and Karl Rove immediately went political, attempting to shove all blame onto Kathleen Blanco and take all credit for rescuing the stranded for themselves--this as the La. National Guard and Blanco's school bus brigade were already on the way to town. FEMA knew what a big storm could do to the Gulf Coast, yet that agency was throroughly unprepared to perform the functions it had taken on itself.

Some people said that Louisiana would have been treated better had Al Qaeda attacked it. My own impression is that, even after 9/11, our Government was simply incapable of thinking in terms of large-scale, wide-scope catastrophic events actually occurring inside our national boundaires.