March 19, 2006

Third World America

The Mississippi Gulf Coast in the Aftermath of Katrina

HOUSTON GEORGE BUSH AIRPORT -- Coming to this airport is the most "patriotic" thing I've done for a while, paying homage to King George and to the owners of America. Here you can go to the Fox News store and watch Fox on multiple screens at once, if one is not enough.

"We would like to remind you that any jokes or inappropriate remarks about security may result in your arrest," says the recorded voice, repeatedly, smiling through clenched teeth. A kindly stated threat.

I'm using the wireless service in the Continental Airlines President's Club, though I'm not in the club. Some rebel Continental employees told me that you can pick up the transmission from outside the elite club room. I'm waiting for a flight, but I'd better not say where or when so the CIA can't decide to liquidate me to silence my uppity remarks.

I'm on my way home from a trip to the Mississippi Gulf Coast where I participated in a volunteer effort to help in the clean-up and restoration efforts of the poor, battered coast. God help the people of Mississippi.

I've heard many people say that "You can't believe it until you see it," and I would agree with that, but I would go one better. I submit that even if you see it, you cannot imagine the extent of the devastation, the depth and pervasiveness of human suffering.

From the east boundary to the west of Mississippi, a 75-mile stretch, the coast is laid waste a mile to five miles inland. The pervasiveness of the devastation is hard to conceive of. It's as if a mighty and vicious hand ripped into the coastline with an immeasurable power.

We are six months from the storm and much of the rubble has been removed. Interstate 10 was closed for a week after the storm in the area where I spent most of my time. It was too covered with rubble to safely allow traffic. There were washing machines and refrigerators miles from the nearest home. Interstate 10 is about five miles from the ocean.

People often say it looks like a war zone, but the state of the Mississippi coast is worse than batteries of artillery or bombing raids would have left it. I hesitate to invoke Hiroshima because the massive human casualties and the lingering radiation poisoning in that poor surprised city were not present in Mississippi. But the widespread destruction of the landscape does compare.

Try to imagine a swath of devastation over 75 miles long and several miles wide. It's not easy to do. It's easy enough to get some measure of it from the air, on the scale George Bush saw it from Air Force One. But the catastrophe of every family that was caught in the destruction, is beyond mortal comprehension.

For any single one of perhaps millions of families you could write the War and Peace of Katrina. People whose retirements were wrapped up in their homes, suddenly without homes. People who paid for hurricane insurance all their lives and then in 24 hours lost everything and found that the insurance does not cover their losses because the houses were washed away by water. "That's not hurricane damage, that's flooding," they say. So you would have had to have flood insurance for that. But few had flood insurance because FEMA didn't classify the area as a flood hazard.

If you were lucky enough to have both policies, you would then find that the policy only covers the house, not the contents. For your belongings you would need two more policies, one for wind and one for water. And if it does pay for your house, it's only the materials. You still have to provide labor, or just look at the stacks of sheet rock and bricks.

There's a mental health crisis in the area. The Harrison County mental health services used to get about four calls a week. Now they get 150. Wife battering and child abuse is up astronomically. People are living in tents, trailers, shattered homes. It's bad, but in spite of heroic efforts to counter the catastrophe, in many ways its still getting worse.

For too long we have taken for granted the progress of civilization, proud of how far we had come and sure that we could only go upward. Now we begin to see that no such thing is guaranteed. Now we see the fragility of civilization itself, how easily destroyed are our creations.

Now we see how the personality embodied by George Bush, who takes all endowments for granted, can preside blithely over the collapse of the very infrastructure that allows us to be civilized human beings.

Come to Mississippi. Come to the advancing third world. Come see your future under George Bush.

For more on this trip to Mississippi, see: Travel Weekly

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