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A Difficult Question

An Australian friend of mine wrote to me from Sydney to ask the following:

I've been following the news of the horrible tragedy of hurricane Katrina...

[T]he thing that is confusing me most about this is the response to the tragedy -- probably best embodied by the headline in the Sydney Morning Herald -- "Shoot to kill, troops told"... and whilst that's the worst of the headlines -- I think each day, the focus has been on the violence that has ensued as a result of the hurricane.

Is the Australian media sensationalising what is happening?

Typically, when there is tragedy -- and the tsunami and 9/11 are two examples that spring to mind -- the focus is on stories of heroism. Why is this so different? It could very well just be the way the media is portraying it here -- but certainly my memory of the stories after the tsunami tragedy were of stories of people helping each other -- not of trying to kill each other.

Is the Australian media sensationalizing what's happening? Not from watching the US news networks.

The real question is, why does the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina seem so much more brutal -- in terms of how affected people have treated one another -- than the aftermath of other similar natural disasters? I spent a couple of days thinking about this, and in the end, wrote back with a list of possible reasons, none utterly convincing, but one that seems to have a possible ring of truth to me.

The Indian Ocean tsunami hit without warning, and across an extremely large region. Since no one was warned, no one evacuated. As a result, the tsunami affected a cross-section of the socioeconomic spectrum, ignoring race, wealth, age, gender, or any other differentiating factors.

In contrast, Hurricane Katrina hit with days of warning. From all accounts, the people left behind in the evacuation were much poorer, on average, than the people who were able to leave. In essence, we took a major American city and cleared out most people above a certain income level. That might have worked out okay had the local, state, and federal governments been prepared and begun restoring order and evacuating people en masse immediately following the hurricane. But as we know all too well, this didn't happen. Without food, without drinking water, without power, without help, feeling abandoned by the rest of the country, and with the population already dramatically altered by the partial, resource-based evacuation, law and order began to break down, at least for some of the people still there. And of course this being America, we had news cameras there in force to record it all.

So I suppose one could call Hurricane Katrina an accidental experiment in socioeconomics. What happens when you remove most of the affluent and middle-class citizens from a city, subject those citizens left behind to a deadly natural disaster with ongoing effects, and then fail to help them, day after day after day? The answer isn't pretty. Should we have expected it would be?


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