Ten months after the Great Flood, the Bible says that Noah started sending out birds, to see if it was safe to leave the Ark. First he sends a raven, which comes back shortly, wings still wet with water. Then, a week later, he sends out a dove, which returns with an olive branch in his mouth. Taking no chances, Noah waits another week and sends the dove out again. It never comes back. It’s safe for humanity to re-enter the storm ravaged world.
It’s only seven days after Katrina—six since the levees broke—and the Federal Government has sent out it’s own ironic version of the dove, that quintessential icon of American commerce, ready to clean-up the mess and replant the olive trees if necessary: the Halliburton Corporation. That’s right, the Halliburton Corporation which has done such a remarkable job rebuilding the oil fields of Iraq, holds the “$500 million Navy contract to do emergency repairs at Gulf Coast naval and Marine facilities that were battered by Hurricane Katrina” according to that bastion of anti-Administration rhetoric, Forbes.com.
After a week of horror reminiscent of the worst Third World chaos, during which the government repeatedly failed to even feed and shelter people adequately; when the Director of Homeland Security told NPR’s Robert Seigel “I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the Convention Center who don't have food and water,” in spite of hundreds of news reports; when even Fox News reporters had on-air tirades against the Administration’s failed response; when the bodies are still lying, stiff on the streets; our government’s response is to send in the company whose $10 billion contract in Iraq still doesn’t have the oil flowing to pay for the rebuilding of that ravaged land.
The dead of New Orleans are drawn from the primarily invisible ranks of poor, black people. Unlike most of the dead from our last great national tragedy, these are not investment bankers or courageous firefighters and police officers. Their Conradian descent into blackness and despair frightens us so much because this is not the way “we” believe that Americans should act. “We” should obey the authorities when they tell us to evacuate, fill up the tanks in our SUVs and plunk down our platinum cards at the hotel far from the danger zone. “We” don’t shoot at rescuers, or rape little girls in shelter restrooms, or murder people for a six-pack. We don’t, do we?
The seething masses in New Orleans brought into the open the treacherousness of the human heart, particularly human hearts stripped of hope by poverty, racism and the marginalization of trickle-down American dreams. The poor of New Orleans did what the authorities told them to do: “if you can’t get out of the city, go to one of these shelters.” Since 30% of the city’s poor are estimated to have no car, they went to the shelters. Nobody mentioned that the shelters would be gulags of horror, without basic provisions of food and water. When the human storm broke, its wrath was a vicious as Katrina’s own.
Great tragedies can open locked windows into our hearts. Previous New Orleans floods actually helped to create a national disaster response system that works more often than it fails. Will this disaster open us up to the reality that is the Tale of Two Americas? Or will we forget about what we saw within ourselves this week?
What we need is city, state and federal officials being held accountable for their failure to care for the people who entrusted their lives to them. What we need is answers from a government that canceled New Orleans levee improvements to finance the rebuilding of Iraq after blowing it up. What we need is a total repudiation of the national leadership that declares that its first priority when it returns to work Tuesday will be to give the rich another tax break. What we need is justice, rolling down like a river, into a land that remains a desert, in spite of the flood.
Right now, we don’t have that. What we have is Halliburton. Why do I feel sick to my stomach?