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Katrina: The Meaning of a Storm

August 29, 2008

Three years ago today, Hurricane Katrina hit the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. When the levees broke, the city of New Orleans and the entire region were devastated. And the poor were left behind to drown. Today, as the city and the region prepares for another storm, government officials offer reassurance that they have learned, that a plan is in place this time. Let us pray it is so.

But Katrina stood for so much more. For one terrible moment the storm tore away the veneer that hides the ugly facts of poverty and injustice in this country. For one terrible moment, the comfortable classes could not pretend that there was nothing wrong in this country. But have we really learned anything from that terrible moment?

A year ago Walter Mosley wrote an essay called “Shouting Underwater” for The Nation that powerfully articulated the broader meaning of Katrina, and the lessons we should learn:

The disaster named after the hurricane is not confined to the areas affected. Every emergency room, empty bank account and outsourced life’s work could be named. We live in a country rife with ignored and condemned poverty. The rich, high on their great corporate steeds, ride over us believing that they are out of the reach of global warming and its symptoms, of terrorism and dwindling natural resources. When government officials tell them to evacuate, they drive their cars, board their corporate jets or simply climb to higher ground with ease. At this very moment they are looking down on Baghdad and New Orleans, Pakistan and Sudan, you and me. The feeling of invulnerability that these people have is unfounded, but nonetheless it makes them reckless. They take chances and cut corners believing that everything will come out all right. Their delusions of grandeur and ultimate power put us in ever more dire straits.

If we call ourselves Americans (and mean it), then we are all victims of Katrina. If we breathe the air or eat fresh fruit, if we call on our cellphones, drink water from a plastic bottle or just nibble on a chocolate bar, then we are Katrina; we are the rising waters around the ankles of this world.

When the day comes to mark off the two-year point since the deluge descended on the Gulf of Mexico, we should take care not to make too much noise. We shouldn’t march in that shadow of time or even protest. Rather, we should sit alone in a room with our imaginations open to feel what they experienced on that day: the waters rising, rising and us climbing stairs and ladders, chairs and fire escapes; sitting on rooftops while bodies float by; calling out to passing boats and helicopters that go by in mute witness; being pressed to the roof by the rising tide and being engulfed shouting, shouting out for the ones we love underwater, unheard; the darkness swirling around us as we die with no one coming to save us, or themselves.

… [And the] waters are still rising….Two years have passed and the dead are still dead and the dying are still dying. The clouds gather like angry anthropomorphic gods, and we stumble and fall unable to make a stand or lend a hand or protest all the victims in ghettos, retirement homes, prison wards and dark skins.

Two years have passed and we are still exporting democracy while we continue living under the semibenevolent oligarchy of international corporations and their candidates. This two-year point measures how far we have sunk under the weight of the rich and their political flunkies–while so many of us still celebrate them as if they were pop stars. We experience the silence of drowning men and women. We call out and are not heard. We believe in systems and people who have no faith in us. We perpetuate the rising temperatures and waters and hatred and feelings of hopelessness. New Orleans’s defeat is also our defeat. Its closed schools are a metaphor for our minds and our futures. We see the storm’s passage but we don’t see it coming. But it is coming. And there are no leaders, no corporations, no benevolent billionaires who are going to save our grandmothers and our babies. We must unite outside of the systems that lie like fast food heaped on golden platters at our feet. We must organize at the ground level, where the water has already begun to rise.”    — Walter Mosley, from “Shouting Underwater.”

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