Hurricane Katrina – View From Asia

Your correspondent went to Thailand and then to Aceh; to cover extend of disaster, almost immediately accusing Indonesian authorities of disorganized, chaotic reaction; of deployment of religious “volunteers” instead of professionals. He accused Indonesian military of sabotaging the aid, of stealing food and water desperately needed for those who managed to survive. In one of his reports he concluded that most of the people in Aceh “died because they were poor”: would such a disaster strike in Singapore or in other wealthy nation instead of in Indonesia where tens of millions live in appalling shantytowns, there would be only a fraction of the casualties.

Today, one of the reports by Reuters starts with these words: “U.S. troops poured into New Orleans of Friday with shoot-to-kill orders to scare off looting gangs so rescuers can help thousands of people stranded by Hurricane Katrina, find the dead and clean up the carnage.” But during the previous days, cameras recorded “looting” by desperate men and women, breaking into the supermarkets and stores, simply trying to survive. Of course there are gangs terrorizing the people in New Orleans area; of course there is shooting and anarchy; but is it the whole story? If the help would arrive sooner; there would be obviously no need for looting and no chance for gangs to organize.

Why did it take US troops so much time to enter New Orleans? Where was all that heavy, high-tech equipment used all over the world, mainly for shameful deeds? On September 1st, official argument went that the aircraft carrier and several war ships just left East Coast, and it will take them some time to reach Gulf of Mexico. But why didn’t they leave earlier; right away; few hours after extend of disaster became known?

On the other hand, Thai Royal Air Force and navy mobilized almost immediately after tsunami damaged great parts of its Southwest coast. Helicopter crews, some risking their lives, were flying thousands of sorties, trying to save people from the high seas and from affected areas. I encountered several pilots close to the airport of Phuket, late at night, their eyes red from lack of sleep; grabbing something fast to eat before returning to the air – exhausted but determined.

In Thailand, dozens of hotels (and private homes) opened their doors to survivors and to the family members (local and foreign) who were searching for their loved ones. Was it lack of solidarity of corporate America that prevented this from happening in the United States? And if it was, why didn’t the government force these hotel doors open for refugees – through an emergency decree? Or is this just another proof that private sector and private property is sacred; more sacred than human life? Should it be taken as a warning: that from now on things will become this way?

New Orleans is no doubt a segregated city. While it is surrounded by posh neighborhoods (inhabited mainly by the whites), the city center and several suburbs are homes to minorities. Some people living there are poor; others very poor. Could it be possible that even during the tragedy rescue operations are treating differently rich and poor, black and white? Is there really a lack of helicopters to airlift everyone; to bring them promptly to safety, to give them decent temporary accommodation, private bathrooms and showers?

Months ago, your correspondent mistakenly claimed that what happened in Aceh could never happen in any developed country. The government which would show such incompetence would be forced to resign. His analyses were proven wrong by recent events in his own country.

In reality almost nothing went right for the citizens of New Orleans, especially for the poor; and nothing is going right even as these words are being written. White bags are covering corpses of those who recently died on the streets of New Orleans; those who died after the disaster – long after. Men, women and children are spread on the ground, many almost motionless, in the center of the city. They are hungry and thirsty; they have no place to wash and to urinate. And they are supposed to stay where they are; they are not suppose to “loot” and if they, by any chance, decide to break into some store and take food and water, there are orders to shoot and kill them!

Andre Vltchek is a writer, political analyst and filmmaker and he can be reached at: [email protected]

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