Mary Dejevsky: When a First World city is plunged into the Third

The aftermath of this hurricane has shown us heroic rescues - and social injustice
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There is something elemental about storm and flood that fire, pestilence and plague cannot match. Reports from New Orleans ring like prophecies of the apocalypse. Corpses float hopelessly in what used to be a thriving and distinctive downtown; coffins rise from the ground; alligators, sharks and snakes ply the poisonous waters, while desperate survivors, axes in hand, beg for rescue from rooftops.

Throughout the American south, the most striking aspect of the wetlands is not the defiance which led people to build cities in such inclement surroundings, but the proximity of the natural world and the primitive quality of the landscape, stuffed with exotic birds and beasts, entangled in luxuriant vegetation. After hurricane Katrina, nature has reclaimed its own. For how long, we cannot know. The booming Texas port of Galveston never fully recovered from the "great storm" of 1900.

The unequal contest between nature and man fought then in Galveston has now been joined in New Orleans. And amid all the destruction, described affectingly by the Louisiana governor as heartbreaking, what we are seeing is not only a human catastrophe, but the extraordinary phenomenon of a major city plunged from the First World into the Third.

Lake Pontchartrain, whose waters now engulf New Orleans, has been turned into a giant cesspit; most motor vehicles are useless. No public utilities are functioning; there is no electricity, no gas, no sewage system and no clean water. Daytime temperatures are in the 90s. Phones are dead. Emergency generators are running short of fuel. Stocks of food, and especially water, are dwindling, even in the Superdome requisitioned as a shelter. And still the waters rise.

In such circumstances, the pertinent question is not whether the comparisons that have been made - with the tsunami in Asia or with Hiroshima - are accurate or appropriate (they are neither), but to what extent a country as rich and advanced as the United States can cope with a natural disaster on this scale. The answer so far is mixed.

Given that most of New Orleans lies below sea level, it is hard to believe that there was no contingency plan for the event of total inundation. That four fifths of the population obeyed the evacuation order before the hurricane struck is an impressive tally. Evacuation is a well-rehearsed and familiar procedure in hurricane-prone areas of the south, and Americans make a sensible appraisal of the risks - survival, as against the loss of their worldly goods - even if the alarms often prove mercifully unnecessary. This time, no one can accuse the authorities of excessive caution.

That said, one fifth of the population remained in the city, either because they could not, or would not, leave. The process of rescuing individuals from the roofs of their houses costs valuable time. Not recovering the dead until the living have been taken to safety might seem ruthless, but is the only realistic course.

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency has swung into action, with resources and disaster expertise. But money, at this stage, is less the problem, than the complete lack of infrastructure. Last night it was expected that the 25,000 people who had taken refuge in the city's Superdome would be taken to Houston in buses - a journey of 300 miles. Almost 500 buses are needed. Naval warships, helicopters and a hospital ship have been ordered into the rescue effort - but most ships will take several days to reach the afflicted coast.

With so much of New Orleans submerged and so many evacuated, out-and-out lawlessness may have presented less of a problem than might be imagined in a desperate American city. But there was widespread looting. There were nothing like enough police or military to secure commercial premises - or to convey food and water from shops to where it might be useful. The different bodies starting to work in the disaster zone has created difficulties in co-ordination.

But something else emerged from the news pictures out of New Orleans. Those who had remained in the city were predominantly its black and Hispanic inhabitants - its poor. Extreme situations have a habit of exposing the best and the worst of a country. The aftermath of this hurricane has shown us heroic rescue efforts, a high degree of civic discipline, and the determination of Americans to survive and "start over". But it has also shown - again - the depth of US urban inequality. If the political will likely to be applied to restoring New Orleans were applied to promoting social injustice, the new city could be another, and better, place.