It's being called the "black tsunami" by outraged African-American leaders, who charge that relief would never take so long to reach white victims of a disaster. But it would be even more accurate to characterize the devastation of Hurricane Katrina as a "black, poor, old and disabled tsunami."
Katrina's 145-mph gales and levee-breaching storm surge have temporarily demolished the widespread complacency and disregard many Americans have for the urban poor. No one with a beating heart can ignore the obvious in the images of this disaster: The people who didn't make it out of New Orleans are overwhelmingly black, poor, elderly or disabled.
Why didn't they heed Mayor Ray Nagin's order to evacuate before Katrina struck? Because many urban poor do not have cars and rely on public transportation, which was not offered to them as a means of escape. Because poor people don't have the cash or credit cards to pay for food and lodging. Because the elderly poor and disabled simply do not have the physical strength to evacuate without assistance.
The faces of the stranded, the starving, the dead and dying - and the looters - are mostly black because two-thirds of New Orleans' population is black. The city's poverty rate is almost 28 percent, more than double the national average. In the inundated Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, more than 98 percent of the residents are black, and more than a third live in poverty.
There's another common feature among those tear-streaked, anguished black faces - two-thirds of the poor in New Orleans are female-headed households with children.
Poverty played the biggest role in why the storm victims got left be- hind, and poverty will likely determine what happens to them after the floodwaters finally recede.
Katrina caused the largest population displacement since the Civil War, forcing more than a million coastal residents in the path of the hurricane to flee. Many of their homes and apartments have been destroyed. More than 100,000 people are living in makeshift shelters along the Gulf Coast.
Typically, single-family homes covered by insurance are the first to be rebuilt. Apartments come much later, and low-income housing is always last. But storm victims need more than a roof over their heads. They also need jobs and nearby schools for their children.
New Orleans won't be able to offer them much of anything. The 287-year-old city is currently uninhabitable, and will be for months.
Middle-class and wealthier Americans take for granted that they'll be able to gain access to the network of government services provided as disaster relief. They'll be able to afford temporary housing and will likely receive flexibility from their em- ployers.
The poor, struggling with basic survival issues and far less ability to cope with dislocation and disruption, suffer longer in the aftermath of a disaster. They face the prospect of long-term relocation to refugee centers and uncertainty about whether they'll ever be allowed to return.
Katrina has forced Americans to examine what happens when a catastrophe complicates the already profound disadvantages of race and class. If the outpouring of support and national unity that was extended to the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks isn't matched for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, the reasons will be shamefully obvious.
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|Title Annotation:||Editorials; Hurricane's victims are mostly black and poor|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Sep 5, 2005|
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