Katrina: A View From the Road

Chris here, writing from the road in vacation land. Figures that I'd pick a week when the South is hit with one of the most monumental and devastating events in recent history to recharge my mental batteries.

First, a belated thank you to your friend and mine, the blogger-formerly-known-as-South-Knox-Bubba, for doing a fabulous job filling in this week. We'll have a little chat with him about continuing to contribute after his time's up at week's end.

Back to Katrina: as you may know, the South's unique vulnerability to "natural disasters" has been an area of special interest to us at the Institute -- it was the focus of our last issue of Southern Exposure magazine, and something we've often come back to on the blog and elsewhere.

If there's a common theme to our coverage, it's been that these tragedies are rarely unexpected or unpreventable "Acts of God." Indeed, as the United Nations' disaster agency argues: "Technically speaking, there are no such things as 'natural disasters.' There are only natural hazards," which only become "disasters" because of decisions that put people in harm's way -- decisions based on politics, economics, race and other very "unnatural" factors.

Many have noted how poverty, race and other forces are playing out in the Katrina's devastating aftermath. To take just one example: one of the better editorials I've read was in today's Cape Cod Times, which rightfully took the corporate media hacks to task for their relentless and sensationalist coverage of alleged brown-skinned hordes roaming the flooded streets of New Orleans in ghastly acts of mass looting:

Predictably, it was anchors on Fox News and right-wing talk radio who ginned up the most indignation over the televised scenes of looting in flood-ravaged New Orleans.

As if this were the biggest problem facing people there as the devastation widened and deepened in that stranded, vulnerable city. At best, the misbehavior is a fleeting sidelight to a profound community tragedy on a scale unseen in this country this century.

Looting is never pretty, but reasonable people make distinctions. In some cases, people need supplies: bottled water, food, diapers.

A little perspective and prioritizing would have been appropriate along with the indignation. Many people were still trapped in their homes; there was no electricity, no drinkable water, neighborhood stores were closed with no prospect of opening. And the water is still rising.

The editorial rightly notes that not every network fell into this bizarre blame-the-victim coverage with clear racial overtones. Martin Savidge of NBC News was one of several who tried to put things into perspective:

''People are desperate and they think the end is near and, unfortunately, when that happens, human nature gets a bit frayed around the edges. But it hasn't collapsed, it's just strained a bit.''

Here at SE/ISS, we'll be covering Katrina more in the coming weeks. If you know folks in Louisiana and Mississippi who were affected, or others who might have a story to share, please let us know in the comments or by email: blog@southernstudies.org

A unique view from a New Orleans local can be found here -- Wade Rathke, legendary organizer and leader of ACORN. They're mobilizing a support effort in the city, based on their work in low-income communities -- you can contribute to their effort here.

R. Neal/ex-SKB, back to you.