Chika Onyeani reflects on the tragedy:
I have lived in the United States for 38 years, and I never thought I would
live to see the day when one part of the only super-power left in the world
would be turned into an enclave worse than a third-world country. But that's
exactly what happened to a city called New Orleans, a beautiful city where I have
visisted three times, and where I eat a lot of crawfish, even buying some to
eat in the plane on my way back. Now this city lies underwater after what is
called Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States, of which
New Orleans is a big part. It is estimated that more than 20,000 people would
have died by the time the final toll of the dead are counted.
New Orleans is basically a black city, that is more than 70 percent of the
people living in New Orleans are blacks. According to the U.S. Census of 2000,
the population of New Orleans is 484,674, comprising of 227,094 men and
257,580 women. Of these number, 325,947 are blacks, while 135,956 are whites, and
the rest are from other races. New Orleans is considered by American standards
to be a poor city, with 28% of the population living below poverty levels.
One of the most famous people to come out of New Orleans is great Jazz musician
"Satchmo" Louis Armstrong.
You know what is good about the United States - its meteorological services
could predict to the letter what is going to happen when the hurricanes start
to form from the ocean. And they assign the different hurricanes a number,
from the weakest which is Category I, to the most potent and worst, which they
have given as Category 5. Category 5 has never happened in the New Orleans
area, which has experienced a Category 3 before. The Katrina Hurricane which has
destroyed the city was given a Category 4.
New Orleans is a city below sea level, you know what that means. That means
the city could easily be over-flown with water from the river unless something
is built to hold the water, and those things are called levees, which have
allowed canals to be built where water is pumped into, which then flows into a
lake called Lake Pontchartrain.
Before this disaster happened, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
had warned in 2001 about the worst disasters that could happen in the United
States, including a Category 5 Hurricane hitting New Orleans, a plane
destroying the World Trade Center in New York, and the third being a Category 9
earthquake hitting the city of San Francisco in California. When this heavy rain
was approaching, traveling at more than 160 miles per hour (more than 260
kilometres per hour), the weathermen warned about the impending disaster. However,
everybody breathed a sigh of relief when the hurricane passed about 15 miles
from the city, yet causing a great deal of destruction in its wake. But the
relief was that the city was still dry.
However, the relief was short lived. Because of the strong winds and the
power of the hurricane, two of the levees which protected the city from being
flooded by the Mississippi River had broken apart, rendering the city unprotected
from the river. By the time the population of New Orleans realised what was
happening, water was rising rapidly throughout the city, swallowing their
homes. Although people had been warned to evacuate as the hurricane was
approaching, most of the population didn't think it would cause the kind of disaster
they found themselves in, especially having been told that the city had escaped
the wrath of Hurricane Katrina.
Remember what I said earlier that the population of New Orleans is 70% black
and that about 28% of them live under poverty level. Yes, there is no doubt
that they were warned to evacuate. Most of these people don't have cars, were
not provided with any other means of leaving the city, and had no funds to pay
for public transportation to leave the city. Again, even if they left the
city, the question was where would they go? Since it was the end of the month,
most people were expecting their pay checks or waiting for government checks -
something called Welfare Checks for those who live under the poverty level.
They had nowhere to go, effectively cut off by the extension of the river
which had taken over the city. The water had gone as high as more than 36 feet in
some areas of the city, higher than a lot of houses. Even if you climbed to
the second floor or third floor of your house, the water would still get you.
It was for disasters like these that the Americans created the Federal
Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Okay, let me back-pedal a bit to tell you why
the levees broke apart. Remember what I said about the study that this same
agency had conducted, which talked about the worst disasters that could befall
the United States, one being a Hurricane Category 5 striking New Orleans. That
was in 2001 after the current President George Bush had assumed duties.
During the Clinton presidency, money had readily been made available to the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers to ensure that the levees surrounding New Orleans were
taken care of. (The Army Corps of Engineers is one of the most admirable
American institutions - why, because they are responsible for constructing some of
the greatest magnificent dams, bridges, roads, in America, unlike our African
military which has nothing to do but plan coups d'etat). Despite the
warning, it is estimated that President Bush cut 44% of the budget money which would
have been used in making sure that the levees did not break. Again, in 2004,
President Bush cut 80% of the funding requested by the New Orleans district of
the Army Corps of Engineers, which would enabled them to hold back the
waters of Lake Pontchartrain.
As I said, FEMA was established to handle disasters such as what happened to
New Orleans. When the city became flooded underwater, most of the population
were evacuated to the football playing building, called the Superdome. FEMA
officials who should have been there from the beginning to make sure that
people were evacuated and provided with food and water, were instructed by the
Director of the agency not to arrive at the city two days after the disaster.
Remember when the tsunami happened in south east Asia, and the next day American
planes were dropping food and water, and providing rescue equipments. That
area is almost 10,000 miles away. But here is an American city, within America,
yet by the fourth day, the same type of rapid response had not happened.
People were dying from the lack of food and water, and when they tried to
find food they were shown as looters. Dead bodies are all over the city of New
Orleans because help did not reach them on time. It is estimated that by the
time all the dead bodies are counted, more than 20,000 would have died.
Americans cannot believe that a government would be callous enough to let this kind
of calamity befall a part of the United States of America.
It looks like a disastrous dream that would occur in a third-world country in
Africa. The question you would be asking is what is the difference. After
all most of the agonizing faces of the dead, dying or about to die, are mostly
black faces. It sure does remind me of the myriad of African tragedies.
You know the greater tragedy? It is the response to what happens in Africa
and what has happened in New Orleans. As usual, the victims are mostly black,
and the rescuers are mostly white. Doesn't that sound familiar to you? Can't
you see a Darfur region in New Orleans? Here we are in America, where the
population of African-Americans is 36 million - some very rich. We have again
abandoned our responsibility to take charge of our kinds, again supplicating
the white power structure to take care of us. I am ashamed of the continental
African response to the tragedy; I am ashamed of the response of the African
governments to the disaster. Our leaders could make available a very tiny bit
of the money they have looted from Africa and stashed away in Swiss bank
accounts, and it could amount to a large contribution, and we would not be
continually regarded as a beggar continent. Look at tiny Cuba offering to send a
contingent of 1,100 well-trained medical doctors to assist. Castro understands
the dynamics of New Orleans. He is not a fool. God, what does it take to
make us understand what is at stake here? We continue to perpetuate the same
It makes me sick to my stomach - when I see it in Africa and when I am seeing
it here in New Orleans. Yet some accuses me of depicting the Black race as
"non-prodictive, lazy, unintelligent, slaves, Neanderthals, zombies,
intellectually dishonest, beggars, undisciplined, dumb-assed idiots, genetically unable
to take care of themselves, etc." Well, the shoe sure fits!!