Truth be told, the distance between the 9th Ward of New Orleans and lower Manhattan in New York City is greater than the 1,300 or so miles that separates the two locations. They are worlds apart. All they would seem to have in common is their unique renown as 21st century disaster sites. On September 11, 2001, two planes struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Just less than four years later, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. All told, close to 3,000 individuals were killed on 9/11. The death toll from Hurricane Katrina currently stands at greater than 1,600, though the number continues to rise asâ€”amazingly, after 7+ monthsâ€”more bodies continue to be discovered. Shaila Dewan reports in yesterdayâ€™s New York Times on these disturbing developments, in an article (excerpted below) entitled â€œIn Attics and Rubble, More Bodies and Questionsâ€?:
The bodies of storm victims are still being discovered in New Orleans â€” in March alone there were nine, along with one skull. Skeletonized or half-eaten by animals, with leathery, hardened skin or missing limbs, the bodies are lodged in piles of rubble, dangling from rafters or lying face down, arms outstretched on parlor floors. Many of themâ€¦were overlooked in initial searches.
A landlord in the Lakeview section put a “for sale” sign outside a house, unaware that his tenant’s body was in the attic. Two weeks ago, searchers in the Lower Ninth Ward found a girl, believed to be about 6, wearing a blue backpack. Nearby, they found part of a man who the authorities believe might have been trying to save herâ€¦.
In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, there were grotesque images of bodies left in plain sight. Officials in Louisiana recovered more than 1,200 bodies, but the process, hamstrung by money shortages and red tape, never really ended.
In the Lower Ninth Ward, where unstable houses make searching dangerous, a plan to use cadaver dogs alongside demolition crews was delayed by lawsuits and community protests against the bulldozing. In the rest of the city, the absence of neighbors and social networks meant that some residents languished and died unnoticed. Many of the families of the missing were far from home, rendered helpless by distance and preoccupied with their own survival.
Now, as the city begins to rebuild in earnest, those families still wait, agonizing over loved ones who are unseen and unburied, but unforgotten.
“We never reached out to anyone to tell our story, because there’s no ending to our story,” said Wanda Jackson, 40, whose family is still waiting for word of her 6-year-old nephew, swept away by floodwaters as his mother clung to his 3-year-old brother. “Because we haven’t found our deceased. Being honest with you, in my opinion, they forgot about us.”
She continued, “They did not build nothing on 9/11 until they were sure that the damn dust was not human dust; so how you go on and build things in our city?”
In October and November, the special operations team of the New Orleans Fire Department searched the Lower Ninth Ward for remains until they ran out of overtime money.
Half a dozen officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency rebuffed requests to pay the bill, said Chief Steve Glynn, the team commander. When reporters inquired, FEMA officials said the required paperwork had not been filedâ€¦.
In February, FEMA agreed to pay for the search for bodies to resume, and on March 2 the agency’s special operations team was able to begin a systematic check of the 1,700 structures in the Lower Ninth Ward, the site of the city’s worst destructionâ€¦.
Often, the search is fruitless â€” in part because of Hurricane Rita, which flooded the area again two weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Many who had perished in the first storm were washed away, leaving behind only the smell of deathâ€¦.
And finding a body is just the first step. Of the 14 bodies found since mid-February, none have been definitively identified and released for burial, partly because FEMA closed a $17 million morgue built to handle the dead from Hurricane Katrina. The morgue was used for eight weeks, and agency officials said there was no longer enough volume to justify keeping it open.
FEMA declined to allow the New Orleans coroner, whose own office and morgue were ruined in the storm, to continue to use the autopsy site. [full text]
Clearly, the federal response to Hurricane Katrina contrasts sharply with that of 9/11. The reasons for such appear obvious. It is all about economic class. The powers-that-be in this country care more about the workers on Wall Street than the residents of New Orleans. They care more about profit margins than those who live on the margins. For all its jazz and revelry, New Orleans is a city plagued by poverty. As noted recently in the magazine, Dollars And Sense, â€œ[t]he city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana were in trouble long before Hurricane Katrina flooded the city and long before the Federal Emergency Management Agency decided that the director’s dinner engagements were more important than the plight of hurricane victims running out of food in the Superdomeâ€¦.The people of New Orleans are poor, and in the Lower Ninth Ward even more so.â€? And, because they are poor, they are all too often neglected and forgotten. That the richest nation in the world can treat its citizens in such a fashion is unconscionableâ€”but, sadly, not surprising. There is a â€œchasm of wealthâ€? in this country, a chasm in which the poor and disenfranchised steadily tumble while the privileged and powerful idly look on. It is shameful, to the nth (or 9th) degree.