At stake in stories of disaster is what version of human nature we will accept, and at stake in that choice is how will we govern, and how we will cope with future disasters. By now, more than a week after New Orleans has been destroyed, we have heard the stories of poor, mostly black people who were “out of control.” We were told of “riots” and babies being murdered, of instances of cannibalism. And we were provided an image of authority, of control—of power as a necessary counter not to threats to human life but to unauthorized shopping, as though free TVs were the core of the crisis. “This place is going to look like Little Somalia,” Brigadier General Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard's Joint Task Force told the Army Times. “We're going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.”
New Orleans, of course, has long been a violent place. Its homicide rate is among the highest in the nation. The Associated Press reports that last year “university researchers conducted an experiment in which police fired 700 blank rounds in a New Orleans neighborhood in a single afternoon. No one called to report the gunfire.” That is a real disaster. As I write this, however, it is becoming clear that many of the stories of post-disaster Hobbesian carnage were little more than rumor. “I live in the N.O. area and got back into my house on Saturday,” one resident wrote to Harry Shearer's website. “We know that the looting was blown out of proportion and that much of it was just people getting food and water, or batteries and other emergency supplies. That is not to say that some actual looting did not go on. There was, indeed, some of that. But it was pretty isolated. As was the shooting and other violence in the streets.”
As the water subsides and the truth filters out, we may be left with another version of human nature. I have heard innumerable stories of rescue, aid, and care by doctors, neighbors, strangers, and volunteers who arrived on their own boats, and in helicopters, buses, and trucks—stories substantiated by real names and real faces. So far, citizens across the country have offered at least 200,000 beds in their homes to refugees from Katrina's chaos on hurricanehousing.org, and unprecedented amounts have been donated to the Red Cross and other charities for hurricane victims. The greatest looter in this crisis may be twenty-year-old Jabbar Gibson, who appropriated a school bus and evacuated about seventy of his New Orleans neighbors to Houston.
Disasters are almost by definition about the failure of authority, in part because the powers that be are supposed to protect us from them, in part also because the thousand dispersed needs of a disaster overwhelm even the best governments, and because the government version of governing often arrives at the point of a gun. But the authorities don't usually fail so spectacularly. Failure at this level requires sustained effort. The deepening of the divide between the haves and have nots, the stripping away of social services, the defunding of the infrastructure, mean that this disaster—not of weather but of policy—has been more or less what was intended to happen, if not so starkly in plain sight.
The most hellish image in New Orleans was not the battering waves of Lake Pontchartrain or even the homeless children wandering on raised highways. It was the forgotten thousands crammed into the fetid depths of the Superdome. And what most news outlets failed to report was that those infernos were not designed by the people within, nor did they represent the spontaneous eruption of nature red in tooth and claw. They were created by the authorities. The people within were not allowed to leave. The Convention Center and the Superdome became open prisons. “They won't let them walk out,” reported Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, in a radical departure from the script. “They got locked in there. And anyone who walks up out of that city now is turned around. You are not allowed to go to Gretna, Louisiana, from New Orleans, Louisiana. Over there, there's hope. Over there, there's electricity. Over there, there is food and water. But you cannot go from here to there. The government will not allow you to do it. It's a fact.” Jesse Jackson compared the Superdome to the hull of a slave ship. People were turned back at the Gretna bridge by armed authorities, men who fired warning shots over the growing crowd. Men in control. Lorrie Beth Slonsky and Larry Bradshaw, paramedics in New Orleans for a conference, wrote in an email report (now posted at CounterPunch) that they saw hundreds of stranded tourists thus turned back. “All day long, we saw other families, individuals and groups make the same trip up the incline in an attempt to cross the bridge, only to be turned away. Some chased away with gunfire, others simply told no, others to be verbally berated and humiliated. Thousands of New Orleaners were prevented and prohibited from self-evacuating the city on foot.” That was not anarchy, nor was it civil society.
This is the disaster our society has been working to realize for a quarter century, ever since Ronald Reagan rode into town on promises of massive tax cuts. Many of the stories we hear about sudden natural disasters are about the brutally selfish human nature of the survivors, predicated on the notion that survival is, like the marketplace, a matter of competition, not cooperation. Cooperation flourishes anyway. (Slonsky and Bradshaw were part of a large group that had set up a civilized, independent camp.) And when we look back at Katrina, we may see that the greatest savagery was that of our public officials, who not only failed to provide the infrastructure, social services, and opportunities that would have significantly decreased the vulnerability of pre-hurricane New Orleans but who also, when disaster did occur, put their ideology before their people.
This essay is a web-only postscript to Rebecca's article 'The Uses of Disaster:
Notes on bad weather and good government' from the forthcoming issue of Harper's Magazine, October 2005.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of several books, including Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, and, most recently, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She lives in San Francisco.Rebecca Solnit lives in San Francisco, where she writes books.