Surviving Katrina

I keep seeing the images of New Orleans: baby’s limp from dehydration, seniors sitting in ghastly exhaustion, people stranded on the rooftops, desperate for rescue. And the stunned, blank stares of the displaced and disenfranchised, all of them wanting nothing more than to survive, to escape the hell that had descended upon them.

More than one person asked me if those images somehow reminded me of Jonestown. Only a few of the images triggered memories. But as a survivor of Jonestown, I can certainly relate to the disintegration of one’s life in the blink of an eye.

Peoples Temple once held a meeting in New Orleans. I don’t remember much about the meeting itself, but I clearly remember New Orleans. I walked the 9th ward handing out fliers advertising our up-coming meeting. It was hot, humid, and dusty. The poverty was abject and pervasive.

But there was “something” about New Orleans that made it feel completely different from the ghettos of Chicago, Houston, Detroit, or any other major American city. Few cities have their own culture, their own architecture, their own music. As a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, I can appreciate that. The heritage of the people of New Orleans, from which the blues and jazz emerged, imbued the city with character and distinction. In short, New Orleans was a national cultural treasure.

Many of the people who contribute to that culture lived in the now-decimated lower 9th ward. For all intents and purposes, “the bywater” has been destroyed. One of the first comments I heard on TV from a conservative politician was that they had “finally found a way to get rid of the projects.” The statement was later retracted, but like the floodwaters, it was too late to undo the damage.

New Orleans will be rebuilt, but it will not be the same. Will the poor who have been uprooted have affordable housing? The simple answer is “no.” They’re talking about building golf courses and parks in the lower 9th. I wonder if the same kind of suggestion would be made if it were Des Moines that had been inundated?

The gut-wrenching agony of New Orleans is about class, first and foremost. The dirty little secret that is American poverty has been given a face, intruding itself uncomfortably into our living rooms. The plight of the poor, the disenfranchised, and the forgotten became real. Even the spin-doctors were rendered mute for days, so overwhelming was the human tragedy. Coincidentally, perhaps synergistically, Census Bureau figures released in the immediate aftermath of Katrina revealed that the poverty level of the U.S. had gone up for the fourth consecutive year.

Why is that?

Perhaps this will prove illustrative. While claiming sensitivity to the plight of poor folks, the propagators of the neo-con agenda have drafted a “recovery” package for New Orleans which reveals how little has changed. Among other things, the proposals:

  • Suspend the prevailing wage law (the Bacon-Davis act);
  • Abolish affirmative action requirements;
  • Award no-bid contracts to Halliburton and Bechtel;
  • Refuse to offer exemptions to those displaced by Katrina’s wrath from the new bankruptcy law, a draconian monstrosity aimed specifically at the poor and middle class;
  • Refuse to consider repealing the enormous tax cuts for the upper one percent of the population, instead offering to cut programs for poor people as the way to pay for Katrina’s destruction;
  • Bristle at the suggestion of an independent investigation into the pathetic federal response (apparently independent investigations are to be limited only to the truly weighty issues of society, such as adulterous sex);
  • Embrace legislation easing the pollution requirements on new oil refineries (what better way to help the poor than to make the air they breathe dirtier and the profits of the oil companies larger?); and
  • Suspend the Davis act, which protects U.S. sea merchants from losing business to international shipping companies. American ships are anchored in port because FEMA has out-sourced the shipping contracts to foreign companies.

If anyone wonders why so many Americans were willing to move to Guyana, the events of the past weeks have shown why. The real-life issues of race, poverty, creeping fascism, war-for-profit, corporate environmental irresponsibility, and religious extremism (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu) are as real today as they were in the late-sixties and early-seventies when so many of us joined Peoples Temple. In fact, these problems have been exacerbated, especially since the current administration was “selected” to office.

What happened in New Orleans was tragic and horrible. But the tragedy and horror and impersonal violence of poverty occurs in this country every day, in almost every corner of America, and to disproportionately large numbers of people of color.

Life will go on. But the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina will be even greater if more people don’t awaken to the sophistry of those in power. Love is not hate. War is not peace. Ignorance is not bliss.

(Tim Carter lived in Jonestown and escaped on the final day. He is a frequent contributor to the jonestown report. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here.)