Katrina on the Potomac

Terrance Heath

There are natural disasters and man-made disasters. There are those who look upon the aftermath of disaster and see things as they should be. We call them conservatives.

As I write this, the seeds of disaster and an aftermath of Katrina-like proportions have been and are being sown in the shadow of the nation’s capitol, by a conservative philosophy that—as a matter of principle and policy—neither prepares for or prevents disaster, nor provides relief in its aftermath And when disaster befalls those most vulnerable to its ravages, conservative philosophy declares disaster the fault of and its consequences deserved by those least able to defend themselves against either.

When disaster strikes Washington, D.C.—whether in the form of a disease outbreak, a dirty bomb, or another terrorist attack—it will be the fault of who cannot get themselves out of harm’s way;and not the fault of conservative philosophy that makes disaster all but inevitable.

One disaster has been quietly underway for some time now, with help conservative hostility to the very idea that government should (not can, but shouldhelp and protect the most vulnerable citizens. Late last year, the first ever statistical report on HIV/AIDS in D.C. revealed a “modern epidemic,” according to The Washington Post. It also revealed the nature of the epidemic and how it has spread.

The numbers most starkly illustrate HIV’s impact on the African American community. More than 80 percent of the 3,269 HIV cases identified between 2001 and 2006 were among black men, women and adolescents. Among women who tested positive, a rising percentage of local cases, nine of 10 were African American.

The 120-page report, which includes the city’s first AIDS update since 2000, shows how a condition once considered a gay disease has moved into the general population. HIV was spread through heterosexual contact in more than 37 percent of the District’s cases detected in that time period, in contrast to the 25 percent of cases attributable to men having sex with men.

When the report came out, Jayne Lyn Stahl aptly labeled the epidemic “the Katrina of public health” in a piece at The Huffington Post.

The presence of an epidemic of this magnitude so close to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can’t help but make one wonder if federal policy, or non-policy is at the nucleus of this health catastrophe. Yet, where is the public outrage that a campaign of misinformation, disinformation, or information/education blockade should claim the same demographic casualties as that of Hurricane Katrina.

…On this administration’s watch, more than $100 million in grants have been allocated for abstinence-only education programs. The president pressured the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to eliminate, from its Web site, anything that might promote the efficacy of using condoms to prevent STDs, and AIDS. Roughly 90 percent of the $15 billion set aside for fighting HIV globally has been made available to domestic groups for use in their ongoing worldwide campaign to promote abstinence, and to discourage the use of condoms in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Is it any wonder then that the spread of HIV/AIDS of this magnitude among the largest minority population of any American city should strike this close to home for a president who, as his response to Hurricane Katrina has clearly shown, is one of devout neglect.

In a Post article published after the report was published, Jose Antonio Vargas told a personal story that illustrated the reality of “two Washingtons” when it comes to HIV/AIDS,and lays a significant amount of blame at the door of the federal government and its policies.

For nearly a decade, congressional opponents of needle-exchange programs have prevented the city from spending its own tax money on funding one, even though a third of all new AIDS cases can be traced to a reused needle. About 210 such programs are in place in 36 cities nationwide. The new Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill says the District’s ban could be lifted by next fall—almost a year away.

(The needle exchange ban was finally lifted early this year.)

As Stahl pointed out at the end of her post:

The platform of “compassionate conservatism” on which this president ran is no more to be found in these statistics than in the waving hands of those drowning as a result of a monstrous hurricane in New Orleans. Once again, it becomes crystal clear that survival, too, is a matter of privilege.

Those statistics, disturbing enough by themselves should be cause for alarm when considered on the context of another report, which says one in five D.C. residents lack access to preventative health care in their communities, and often end up in hospital emergency rooms with conditions that could have been treated and controlled if not prevented.

Images of citizens crowding emergency rooms are even more alarming when you consider that D.C.—along with cities across the country—may find its hospitals even more stressed in the event of a flu epidemic, because the federal government’s plans for dealing with an outbreak do not account for the strain on hospitals and public health systems that are already swamped.

And the national bird flu plan hasn’t even been tested. The USDA has made “significant progress” in developing its plan to prevent the disease in birds (it remains difficult for people to catch, but not impossible if it mutates into a people-friendly form, as pathogens are wont to do) but doesn’t intend to test important part of its plan.

Maybe that has something to do with the fact that, from April 2004 to March 2006, Bush crony Stewart Simonson was the go to guy on emergency preparedness in HHS, despite having next to no experience; something which blew my mind when I blogged about it more than two years ago.

Essentially, a crony appointment was for several years “the point man for just about every health emergency that may hit our shores, ranging from anthrax attacks to an avian flu pandemic,” as a couple of columnists put it. And, more than a year later, we’re still not ready. In a city like Washington, D.C., where a number of citizens’ have significant health challenges and difficulty accessing care, it’s very clear how many of them will fare should that particular variety of disaster strike.

And, in the event of disaster or terrorist attack, they will very likely be stuck right where they are—in harm’s way.

The Bush administration has spent just a fraction of its national security budget on securing cities—specifically on a $90 million program to detect nuclear threats, that has grown despite the absence of an identified threat of nuclear terrorism, and which doesn’t appear to work very well anyway.

Meanwhile, in the event of an attack or other disaster, the evacuation plan for the Washington, D.C., region is inadequate, to say the least. There is, for the seventeen cities and counties that comprise a prime target for a terrorist attack, no unifying plan to evacuate citizens in such an event. It’s basically every jurisdiction for itself, and apparently that’s as it should be as far as Homeland Security is concerned.

“What we decided was: You can’t have one operational plan across state, commonwealth and District for evacuation,” said Chris Geldart, the representative for the D.C. area at the Department of Homeland Security. “But what you can do is understand what is everybody’s plan and how they fit together.”

He called the guide a significant advance and said it would provide the building blocks for a more integrated regional plan.

The guide that Geldhardt—a contributor to Michael Steel’s Senate campaign, and employee of former Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich’s administration—calls a “significant” advance pretty much counts on most people fleeing in their cars, and to do so via evacuation routes that narrow significantly outside of D.C., and evaporate altogether in some cases. Anyone who’s ever driven in D.C.’s rush hour traffic can easily envision the chaos.

Those without cars might get out, if they can get to one of the 105 identified pick-up points, though they may have a bit of a wait. There’s a database of available vehicles to evacuate those who don’t have vehicles of their own, but the evacuation plan “does not make the assumption” that enough trained, licensed drivers will be available,” and suggests it might be difficult to round up off-duty bus drivers for the task. And D.C. residents better not needto use the restroom or need a drink of water while they wait, because most jurisdictions haven’t planned to provide water or bathrooms at their pick-up points.

In the aftermath of Katrina, images of people waiting on top of roofs became symbolic of the disaster that was the (lack of) response. It’s not hard to imagine similar pictures of people gathered at rather desolate pick-up points in D.C., waiting for evacuation rides that probably aren’t coming.

So far, I’ve just mentioned the people who are healthy enough to get to a pick-up point. The guide expects available medical transportation sources and ambulances—for evacuating the sick, disabled, and elderly—to be overwhelmed. We probably won’t see them on television, in the event of disaster. At least not right away. These are the people who will be stranded in their homes. We won’t see them, and probably won’t hear of them until their bodies are recovered and counted. Perhaps not even then if the body count and recovery is outsourced to the right campaign donors.

When the world saw the images of Katrina’s aftermath and—overwhelmed by the human suffering we all witnessed—asked “What went wrong?”, conservative pundits like Bill O’Reilly and George Will blamed those left behind in New Orleans. Cronyism and incompetence were not to blame for their suffering. It was their fault for being poor; for not, say, being able to pile the family into the SUV and head for higher ground. And FEMA, which first delayed the release of relief funds and then lost over $30 billion in relief funds to fraud and waste, certainly wasn’t to blame. The people left behind in that stagnant water were to blame for needing relief in the first place.

This is still the conservative take on Katrina. But where O’Reilly and Will merely suggested that the government can’t help those who are unable to help themselves when disaster strikes, Neal Boortz is much more blunt in his latest rant against Katrina victims.

BOORTZ: I like this: “Edwards’ campaign will end the way it began 13 months ago, with the candidate pitching in to rebuild lives in a city still ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Edwards embraced New Orleans as a glaring symbol of what he described as a Washington that didn’t hear the cries of the downtrodden.” Cries of the downtrodden, my left butt cheek. That wasn’t the cries of the downtrodden; that’s the cries of the useless, the worthless. New Orleans was a welfare city, a city of parasites, a city of people who could not and had no desire to fend for themselves. You have a hurricane descending on them and they sit on their fat asses and wait for somebody else to come rescue them. “It’s somebody else’s job to get me out of here. It’s somebody else’s job to save my life. Not mine. Send me a bus, send me a limo, send me a boat, send me a helicopter, send me a taxi, send me something. But you certainly don’t expect me to actually work to get myself out of this situation, do you? Haven’t you been watching me for generations? I’ve never done anything to improve my own lot in life. I’ve never done anything to rescue myself. Why do you expect me to do that now, just because a levee broke?”

And then Edwards said, yeah, it was Washington’s problem, it was all Washington’s problem, it was all George Bush’s fault. You had a city of parasites and leeches, and that’s George Bush’s fault? So, boy, I need to slow down. I’m saying too many of the things I actually believe today.

What Will and O’Reilly merely implies, Boortz all but says outright: it’s not that the government can’t help people, especially the poor, who can’t get themselves or their families out of harms way; it’s that the government shouldn’t help them. Their poverty itself marks them as undeserving of help.

And it’s not just the government that must not offer help. Boortz’s rant, and the philosophy behind it, excuses him or any individual from offering help to the poor and suffering. “Not my job,” says Boortz, or anyone else’s. Where Al Gore quietly flew people out of New Orleans, on his own dime and his own time, Boortz rants self-righteously from a radio studio. According to conservative philosophy, it’s Boortz who actually did the right thing. After all, the aftermath of Katrina, given who was left behind, was simply the way things ought to be. The poor are so solely because of their own moral failings. If they were better people they’d be better off.

Anyone who helps them is actually helping the wrong people. That’s why it’s not just neglect but “devout neglect,” as Stahl refers to it. It may be neglect, but in the world Boortz and conservatives like him would have the rest of us live in, it is not just “devout neglect.” It is righteous neglect. If survival is “a matter of privilege,” then some people shouldn’t survive. Their poverty identifies them as such, and thus helping them survive is actually immoral.

I can only imagine what Boortz, Will, O’Reilly and the entire conservative media noise machine would say about the poor, sick, elderly, (and let’s just say it) Black folks who would almost certainly be left behind to “fend for themselves” in the aftermath of an epidemic, “dirty bomb” or terrorist attack in or around D.C. It won’t be the fault of an inadequate health care system. It won’t be the fault of a government that fails in its attempt to detect a threat, protect citizens, or plan for evacuation and relief.

If or when it happens, “Katrina on the Potomac,” will be the fault of the poor, sick and elderly left to suffer the aftermath. And if the consequence is that disaster gets them “out of the way” of decidedly non-parasitic developers seeing no-bid contracts to bulldoze affordable housing and build shelter for the more affluent, then it’s simply a case of nature “cleaning up,” and is even some cause for celebration.

When I first moved to the D.C. area, over ten years ago, my parents came to visit. They were shocked at the number of homeless people in Washington, and remarked to me that such ought not be the case in the nation’s capitol. My guess is that they believed that conditions in the capitol should reflect the principles that are—or should be—the basis of our philosophy of government.

Conditions in D.C. are no less shocking today, but they are a reflection of conservative philosophy, its consequences and perhaps its aim. Things are in D.C. are not yet as they should be. But we are only one disaster away.

Crossposted from the Republic of T.

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