By Ron Walters
-Guest Columnist-

Iraq war delayed Katrina relief effort, inquiry finds (Independent, 10-02-2005)

( – The Black community has a right to be angry about the slow response of its government to the human crisis in New Orleans created by Hurricane Katrina. In a recent Gallup/CNN poll, 76 percent (compared to 60 percent of Whites) said they were angry about the government’s response to Katrina. According to a Pew poll, 66 percent of Blacks felt that if the victims had been White, the response of the federal government would have been quicker.

This places the anger squarely at the federal government as the unit with the largest and most effective resources to respond to the crisis, but did not respond in a timely manner.


One source of that anger is the knowledge that the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has often swung into action before hurricanes hit on Florida’s coast, in areas that are both largely White and politically potent. But another source is the unconscionable and disproportionate focus on the lawlessness of Blacks, as opposed to the lack of swiftness in the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Their anger was also grounded in the knowledge that this was not the case when the tsunami hit Asia and looting and rioting also occurred. That event was considered a human tragedy, worthy of our immediate response, complete with former presidents dispatched to raise funds. By comparison, the human response to the Katrina hurricane was racialized by some, who used the lense of persistent negative stereotypes rather than the truth that much of what was occurring was the normal human response of desperate people trying to survive.

Perhaps, it was providential that Hurricane Katrina attacked Louisiana, dredging up the profound fact that of New Orleans’ population of 450,000, one quarter (100,000), are officially classified as poor. The virulence of this poverty not only trapped a largely Black population so that it could not move out of the city, it signaled that their social and economic opportunities had been trapped as well.

Official statistics document the expansion of hard-core poverty census tracts in our major cities in the past two decades. They also tell us that last year was the fourth consecutive year that poverty increased in America with one million more people falling into that condition.

However, urban policy has been unpopular for more than two decades and has been denigrated in the rush to institute a conservative philosophy of “personal responsibility” for people who are unable to mobilize it. The 1980s began an era of punitive policies to deal with housing, crime, welfare and job training for poor people. They were left cities unable to deal effectively with these problems while the urban tax base was reduced by the out-migration of Whites and Blacks and the hostility of governors and the federal government toward supplementing city budgets.

More recently, some presidents have attempted to push responsibility for this problem on to the agenda of faith based communities that cannot possibly handle its magnitude. So, in this devastating human toll, Katrina also has revealed the failure of policies that could have made 100,000 people stronger and more able to accept their personal responsibility.

Finally, the racism of the moment has caused many Whites, and even some Blacks, to place the problem on the shoulders of Mayor Ray Nagin. Going back carefully through the time line of events has convinced me that both he and Governor Kathleen Blanco responded to the National Weather Center alarm long before the hurricane hit. She mobilized the National Guard that Saturday and asked President George Bush to issue a state of emergency. Then, Mayor Nagin issued an evacuation order at 9:30 a.m. Sunday before the hurricane hit, based on the existing emergency plan (one incidentally that had been in existence long before his short tenure in office).

But there were three devastating problems: the hurricane eliminated the capacity of the National Guard to respond by knocking out all of their communications; half of their men and most of their equipment had been sent to Iraq; and the water shut down the ability of local officials to deliver transportation services putting citizens on their own. In that breach, the Bush administration should have acted, but neither Michael Chertoff, head of Homeland Security, nor Michael Brown, head of FEMA, seemed to know that the Superdome was filling up with thousands of people and utter devastation had occurred.

One hopes that the reconstruction of the damage done by this hurricane causes a reconsideration of what “Homeland Security” really means: building not only material infrastructure, but also freeing the poor trapped in such cities through renewed initiatives to foster effective social policy.

(Ron Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, director of the African American Leadership Institute in the Academy of Leadership and professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland-College Park.)