Beasts and the Ghosts of Hurricane Katrina

Buzz about ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ led me to expect a visually beautiful and inspiring story of childhood resilience, and there is that. But so much more. A review by critic, Rex Reed in the New York Observer gets it…

The setting is the emotionally parched and geographically designed cartographer’s view of hell called The Bathtub—what’s left of an area of makeshift cardboard and toothpick shanties that Katrina devastated, scattering the region’s population to the wind like dandelion fuzz. It lies low between the Gulf and the Mississippi River—a man-made wall has gone up on the dry side of the levee to protect against annihilating floods. This is where nothing grows, catfish and crawdads from polluted water are the only food, and stubborn Cajuns who refused to evacuate to higher ground when Brad Pitt and Sean Penn came down to rescue them on CNN News still live in the ultimate depths of poverty and ignorance. It’s the most sobering view of the uneducated and disenfranchised outcasts the world has forgotten since Precious.

The tone of the movie is deeply sad and brings up unfinished business. Hush Puppy, played by six-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, is the center and heart of the story. She and her father Wink, played by Dwight Henry, struggle to keep above the rising waters of their bayou shantytown, The Bathtub. It’s a desperate and doomed struggle. Wink is dying, and the community of The Bathtub is trapped behind levees–the ocean rising as icebergs melt and the debris and pollution of the more affluent poisoning their waters. They have a survival ethic and skill that is deeply human, they wear the history of the human race tattooed on their bodies. But they are among the majority of the seven billion on our planet who, lacking power, could disappear beneath the waters without a trace.

This Wednesday, August 29th, marks seven years from the landfall of Category 5
Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. Residents in the poorer quarters of New Orleans, like the residents of ‘The Bathtub’ in the film, lived below sea level. The levees in New Orleans failed catastrophically and more than 1,800 died. Those walls were intended to keep the water out. Years of other priorities, as foretold in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Washington Post, left the most vulnerable citizens unprotected against the worst forces of nature. The elderly and handicapped were too often left to their own resources, and many, having survived other hurricanes, stayed in their apartments and hoped for the best. The fall of the levees was an unexpected and overwhelming disaster.

For the rest of America, the news footage of people stranded on rooftops, miles of water where neighborhoods used to be, a woman dying in a wheelchair on an overpass above the flood waters– these images will stay with us.

The news obsessed about ‘looters’ and pumped up stories of violent anarchy that slowed rescue and opened the gates to vigilante tactics by police officers. Crime was real enough, but in the crossfire between the frightened and armed, the innocent were left to die in abandoned rooms and drowning hospitals.

Some stats from the Common Dreams Katrina Pain Index

21 Percent of all residential addresses in New Orleans that are abandoned or blighted. There were 35,700 abandoned or blighted homes and empty lots in New Orleans (21% of all residential addresses), a reduction from 43,755 in 2010 (when it was 34% of all addresses). Compare to Detroit (24%), Cleveland (19%), and Baltimore (14%). Source: Greater New Orleans Community Data Center (GNOCDC).

27 Percent of people in New Orleans live in poverty. The national rate is 15%. Among African American families the rate is 30% and for white families it is 8%. Source: Corporation for Enterprise Development (CEFD) and Greater New Orleans Community Data Center (GNOCDC) Assets & Opportunity Profile: New Orleans (August 2012).

33 Percent of low income mothers in New Orleans study who were still suffering Post Traumatic Stress symptoms five years after Katrina. Source: Princeton University Study.

All of us who watched this disaster unfold are left with a sense that we could have done better. A barn-raising sort of mutual aid was needed, and volunteers from every state were eager to help. This good energy was squandered, along with the relief money and the teachable moment that this new level of disaster may be a warning of storms to come.

One of our two great political parties, the GOP, is holding their convention in Tampa, FL. They had to delay the convention by a day for Tropical Storm Isaac, which is predicted to strike land with hurricane force on the very anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

It would be a crime to let the 24 hour spin cycle rob us of the longer view. The struggling poor in Beasts of the Southern Wild are haunted by ghosts from pre-history. America is haunted by ghosts from the drowning of New Orleans who have not been appeased, and will not rest easy as long as we close our ears to their warnings.

One thought on “Beasts and the Ghosts of Hurricane Katrina

  1. New Orleans and much of Louisiana for that matter were corrupt cesspools-corrupt public officials and police don’t perform very well in these situations.
    The Federal response,except for the Coast Guard, was abominable.The Governor and mayor of New Orleans were seemingly paralyzed-the perfect storm of nature was magnified by a perfect storm of incompetence.

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