More than 8 months ago, one of the worst natural disasters in a human history destroyed substantial part of a province under Indonesian control – Aceh. Although exact number will never be known, close to 250 thousand people lost their lives during the under-ocean earthquake and consequent tsunami; tens of thousands died in Sri Lanka, India and Thailand combined. It is now clear that tens of thousands more people died due to inadequate response of Indonesian government and military, stranded in remote areas with no food, drinking water, shelter and medical care.
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.
It is now September 2nd, and the cameras of almost all important international news networks are zoomed on the desperate men, women and children, begging for help, abandoned under the brutal sun with almost no food, water and shelter; in one of the greatest historical cities of The United States of America – New Orleans.
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.
After flying over New Orleans (no doubt great sacrifice and expression of solidarity), President Bush spoke about restoring order. It was obvious that defending private property was higher on his mind than suffering of his fellow citizens. He didn’t explain what good is rotting food in partially submerged supermarkets and convenience stores anyway. One wonders whether this is a new and powerful message from his administration: no matter what, the private property is untouchable and defending it is of greater importance than saving human lives.
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?
Eight months ago reaction of the Republic of Indonesia was similar: while it takes just a few minutes, at most hours, for its military to blow sky-high known positions of the rebels in Aceh or Papua; after the tsunami, for many days, there was suddenly almost no hardware available for the rescue missions. There was “not enough ships in the area”; soldiers and police on the ground were “too overwhelmed”. Government refused to take any decisive action, instead relying on the glorification of the “volunteers”.
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.
On Thursday, the whole world watched as buses were shuttling people from the Dome in New Orleans (where almost everything collapsed; from air conditioning to the toilets) to Astrodome in Huston, Texas (where thousands of victims of the hurricane were expected to sleep on the military beds and share just a few toilets originally designed for the athletes). It was hard to avoid asking: is this really the best the US government can do for those who are experiencing severe trauma; for those who lost everything? This is not Aceh but Houston, Texas, the center of the US oil industry and space program, with hundreds of hotels and motels spread all over the area!
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?
For several days, there were countless images of the Coast Guard helicopters rescuing residents in the flooded areas from their rooftops and from their damaged homes. Helicopters were dropping baskets, pulling victims on board. Most of those rescued did have home as they lived in the residential areas. In the same time, we were learning that people elsewhere were starving, literally dropping dead in the middle of the streets in the centre of New Orleans.
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?
No matter what are the reasons, response to the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico was inadequate, scandalously slow; unforgivable. The mightiest military power on earth couldn’t (or refused to) deploy soldiers right after the tragedy; it stood-by as people were dying in the centre of New Orleans which was just a few hours after the hurricane definitely reachable from the air. The government of the United States failed.
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 Washington, there are no calls for impeachment and it seems that no heads will roll as a result of what this outrageous failure which took lives of many men, women and children. Criticism in the US mainstream press is half-hearted and when it appears, it is diluted by the stories (always so much in demand and on offer) about the heroism and self-sacrifice of the rescue workers. It may appear that although some mistakes were made, society is still governed by the sound principles; that in essence everything is correct.
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]