Images on TV channels, the web and daily papers, were stark: thousands-strong mobs chaotically scattered on the roadside, gigantic piles of trash, corpses sprawled in filthy waters right beside the squatting people, emaciated crying children unable to chase flies from their faces… Indifferent, weary soldiers - pushing, yelling, pointing guns at the desperate crowds. We’ve seen it all – on BBC, CNN - from various hotspots in world’s poorest places – usually in refugee camps somewhere in Africa or South Asia. But it wasn’t a ghoulish refugee camp in Sudan or Sierra Leone. It was a ghastly gathering place for survivors in a big, important - and until recently a vibrant American city, visited by millions of tourists each year.
It didn’t happen in the middle of the jungles, or in a far-flung mountainous area, where some disastrous earthquake leveled all buildings and destroyed all roads, so that rescue operations needed to overcome rough terrain, absence of available food or inclement weather. This was in the center of America, on a junction of the busy Gulf coast and the country’s biggest river, with passable roads leading to other large cities (even if some of them were damaged or trashed).
“It sank” – the unfortunate phrase was made (in)famous five years ago, when Vladimir Putin uttered it with a goofy smirk in his interview on the Larry King show in the aftermath of the loss of the Kursk submarine. Putin had yet to learn some basics of public relations and it didn’t look good on TV. In the August of 2000 Russia was less than pleased with his performance - swimming in the Black Sea, while the nuclear submarine found itself disabled and lifeless on the bottom of the Barents Sea after a mysterious explosion. Yet the main charge that Putin’s opponents threw at him – that he and the Navy commanders were late in calling foreign help – was a pointless demagoguery: it took eventually five days for the foreign assistance to reach the Kursk, while all aboard it were dead within 10 hours of the initial blast.
But here, in the New Orleans, the failure was hundreds times worse. Equally idiotic and shallow was the reaction of the American political class. Most of them immediately started throwing blame at the opposite faction – a despicable shit-fight by monkeys in a zoo. Democrats blamed Bush, with his dim-witted FEMA director Michael Brown, whose only qualification for the job was being a roommate of the Republican functionary and a lobbyist who led FEMA earlier. Republicans dumped everything on local Democratic authorities – the New Orleans mayor and Louisiana governor, who proved just as inept. In fact the monstrous incompetence and stupidity was shown at all levels, a truly systemic breakdown.
It started long before the Katrina struck. With all the information became known after the flood, one can only gasp at how this precarious situation was allowed to rot and rust for such a long time. Some petty Middle Eastern dictatorship would have done it more responsibly. The city, much of it below the sea level, was shielded from surrounding water by single (!!!) perimeter of flimsy earthen and concrete levies. The houses and streets began 20 feet from the levies in some places. No internal sections were separated by other barriers, so a single breach was enough to flood the whole city. This is a stunning sloppiness: for example in Holland, where half if the country is below the sea level, they built a huge multi-level system of dams, sluices and retractable barriers. Compared to flood protection in Holland, the New Orleans levees system looked like a beaver’s pile next to the Hoover dam. After Katrina struck, the levees failed in a most trivial way: the flood waters poured over the top of the levees, washed away their earthen foundations, and concrete barriers were simply knocked over, letting the waters in.
I started writing some notes about the Katrina in my LiveJournal blog (see my previous article on this important phenomenon in the Russian internet domain: http://www.exile.ru/2005-July-01/censor_this_.html ) before it hit New Orleans. It was simply out of mild curiosity, because Katrina was going to be the strongest hurricane in recent years and because of my previous scientific background in geophysics and oceanography. On Monday, August 29th, the hurricane passed a hundred miles away from the city, the worst seemed to be over and I thought the whole thing will be forgotten in a week. Then the true nightmare started, as news gradually trickled in. The city began to flood. At first it was thought to be just from rain, gathering all waters from the Mississippi basin. It took more than a day for the idiots who were supposed to monitor the situation to comprehend that levees were breached, in three places simultaneously. By that time waters covered 80% of the city. No help, or any authorities, were in sight. Chaos, looting and gunfire filled the streets. Some helicopters flew over the suburbs, picking occasional people stranded on the rooftops, while nearly hundred of thousands waited for promised food and buses that weren’t coming. Those who tried to cross the bridge over the Mississippi to the neighborhood of Algiers (which was mostly dry) were turned away by the National Guard. As the terrible news seeped from the ghostly city, nothing changed for days. By Friday night TV viewers all over the country were treated with the sight of sobbing – no, bawling – Anderson Coopers of the CNN and Geraldo Rivera of the Fox News, who couldn’t realize how it is possible: tens of thousand of hungry people, terrorized by bandits, hundreds dying like flies, with police and military simply driving around, occasionally throwing some packages of food into the crowd.
On Friday I wrote a relatively brief analysis of the situation and all the systemic failures as I saw them: the evacuation, the SuperDome and the Convention Center, the levies, the hospitals. It became an instant hit on the Russian net – my blog post was swarmed by more than 300 comments, the number of people who included me in their “friend-list” (that is, all my posts to be added to their reading material) in the next few days jumped by nearly two hundred (it was growing at a rate of one person a day before that). The most popular Russian independent news portal Lenta.ru mentioned it in their commentaries about Katrina, the whole passages from my blog were quoted in an article at the top business news portal RosBusinessConsulting, read aloud on a TV news program, references to it were found in English, Ukrainian, Vietnamese and god knows what other languages.
Another, even more popular post – by a journalist from the leftists paper “Zavtra” – retold a telephone conversation with a Russian student, a friend of his, who was stuck in New Orleans for five days after the storm. It was surreal. He reported that about a quarter of the city residents stayed behind, ignoring the call to evacuation which was issued in the city several times a year, and in most cases proved counterproductive. Evacuation itself involved up to 12 hours of traffic jams, no vacancies in hotels within hundreds of miles, and often no place to go – no surprise that so many people stayed.
After the flood all signs of normal life evaporated. Everywhere there were incessant sounds of gunfire, near the center of the city – the whole gun battles, with automatic weapons, storms and sieges. No, they weren’t between the gangsters and the police or the army – the police was nowhere to be seen. The only presence of authorities in four days was a couple of helicopters, from which somebody shouted something incomprehensible over the engine noise, and flew away. The battles were between different gangs for the choicest looting ground – streets with best shops or big department stores, or the richest apartments and family houses. Most of the police simply ran away. He’s seen police cars where cops put their own families in and drove out, with flashes and sirens, ahead of the rest of the populace. Those who stayed often barricaded themselves in their precincts. They didn’t have enough weapons, enough gas for patrol cars, even batteries. Can you imagine such a monstrous idiocy – the police didn’t even have batteries for flashlights! After all the hurricane warnings, disaster preparedness, hundreds of pages of evacuation plans!
Every night looters came nearby. Fortunately it wasn’t the richest neighborhood, and bandits weren’t too insistent. They usually could be chased away with guns before entering the house. If not – the inhabitants were better hide inside and let them loot, otherwise bandits started to shoot randomly in every direction. The narrator was also stuck by infantilism of some of his American neighbors: they were unable even to boil themselves some water for drinking, even having functioning portable gas stoves. Eventually he realized that no help is coming at all, found some old inflatable kiddy pool in the attic, and rowed away with a few belongings, to be picked up by a boat patrol that at first tried to arrest him for looting.
There was one more bizarre thing during the New Orleans tragedy: the incredible length to which the Russian “democrats” were willing to go to justify this gigantic failure. It was a sorry sight. The delusional, fat-assed empire shat all over itself, becoming the laughingstock of the whole world. Lo and behold – crowds of Russian “liberal journalists”, and “democratic reformers” tripped over one another to lick and swallow this shit, rather than allowing their myths about Great America to be sallied. Some of it was truly odious: for example the well-known journalist Yulia Latynina, the columnist of the Moscow Times, ranted on her radio show that all who stayed in the New Orleans and died there were just druggies and criminals – otherwise they would surely get away; of course the Bush administration wasn’t to blame. It was utterly disgusting – no semi-respectable American media outlet would publish such hateful drivel, and of course no American media quoted her words. Why this sudden reticence – they always liked to publish or quote her when she said pretty much the same things about Russians – or at least that was clearly her line of thought.
Yet for most Russians the American prestige after New Orleans sunk to the level never seen before. And that’s probably not too bad a thing – after all it is better to live by one’s own wisdom, rather than by faded myths about some far-away paradise.