Lessons from the Black Tsunami

The world has been horrified at America’s response to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans. Four years after the terrorist attacks of September 2001, and with billions of dollars allegedly spent on “preparedness” for another emergency, America has shown the world that it was not prepared – even for an event that came with ample warning.

The difference between the Tsunami in Asia last December and what is coming to be called the Black Tsunami in America – because it brought so much devastation to the poor, mostly black, people of Louisiana – is striking. The Asian disaster showed the ability of those affected to overcome long-standing rifts, as Aceh rebels put down their arms in common cause with the rest of Indonesia. By contrast, the disaster in New Orleans – and elsewhere along America’s Gulf Coast – exposed and aggravated such rifts.

The Bush administration’s response to the hurricane confirmed the suspicion among blacks that, while they might send their boys to fight America’s wars, they had not only been left behind in America’s prosperity, but that there was neither understanding nor concern when they needed it most. An evacuation was ordered, but no means to do so were provided for the poor. When help came, it was, as one New York Times columnist noted, like the Titanic: the rich and powerful got out first.

I was in Thailand right after the Tsunami, and I saw that country’s impressive response. The Thais flew consular and embassy officials to the affected areas, aware of the sense of helplessness among those stranded far from home. America kept foreign officials from coming to the aid of their nationals in New Orleans – embarrassed, perhaps, at what they would see.