Opinion » Ted Rall

No Gas, No Food, No Lodging

Hurricane victims get a taste of life in occupied Iraq

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SAN FRANCISCO--Taps run dry. Food rots when the power goes out. Toilets overflow with waste. Looters strip homes, businesses and public buildings. Armed bandits run wild in the streets. Fires rage out of control. Terrified policemen abandon their posts. Flies buzz over bloated corpses. People wave signs at passing helicopters. "Please help us," they read.

"Help is on the way," their head of state assures them. But the government sends soldiers instead of relief workers. The troops treat the victims, who are taxpayers and citizens, as if they were prisoners. Aiming weapons at the sick and dying, they herd thousands into sports arenas where they receive neither water, nor food, nor safe harbor. While indifferent soldiers man checkpoints to prevent the detainees from leaving, babies starve, the elderly die from lack of medicine and children are raped and murdered. They set up checkpoints to prevent anyone from leaving.

Reuters reports from inside a convention-center-cum-refugee camp:

"Sitting with her daughter and other relatives, Trolkyn Joseph, 37, said men had wandered the cavernous convention center in recent nights raping and murdering children. She said she found a dead 14-year old girl at 5 a.m. on Friday morning, four hours after the young girl went missing from her parents inside the convention center. 'She was raped for four hours until she was dead,' Joseph said through tears. 'Another child, a 7-year old boy was found raped and murdered in the kitchen freezer last night.'"

The horror of the aftermath is so extreme that it nearly erases the memory of the initial disaster.

Water, food, housing, electricity: In the modern era, society collapses without them. However, as I found while reporting on the invasion of Afghanistan, they are not equally essential.

I was surprised to discover that I hardly missed food. On the other hand, thirst turns people mean within hours. Water, orange cola and a rusty case of mid-'90s Qatari Pepsi got me through for over a week. The lack of electricity, conversely, proved inconvenient in unexpected ways. Laptops and even satellite phones--essential technology whether writing from a war zone or organizing rescue operations in a flooded American city--rely on rechargeable batteries. Generators are expensive and cumbersome and they run on gas. But without electricity, you can't pump out the fuel.

Shelter took a back seat to hygiene. Absent rain (a safe bet in Afghanistan), I would have picked a hot shower over housing. That had to go double for the newly homeless who have been wading through filthy floodwaters in New Orleans. Whether for drinking or bathing, clean water comes first.

American politicians and bureaucrats neither know life without the basics nor talk to those who do, which is why they failed to respond coherently to the humanitarian crisis caused by Hurricane Katrina. Airlifting bottled water ought to have been FEMA's first priority. Refugee centers ought to have featured rows of portable showers. It is inexcusable that hospitals weren't outfitted with backup generators and fuel reserves to run them. Police, firefighters and other first-responders ought to be equipped with satellite phones powered by disposable batteries.

Of course, the government's biggest mistake was its decision to privatize the evacuation. Those who owned cars fled. 100,000 poor people, who ride New Orleans' streetcar system, were left behind to die. Greyhound's nearly 2,000 buses could have gotten them all out--but commandeering private property is the act of a civilized nation, not the leaner, meaner, tough-break United States. Similarly, storeowners should have distributed water and other emergency supplies under a FEMA guarantee of reimbursement.

It only took a few days for New Orleans to descend into anarchy, for the survivors of Katrina to lose hope, for disgusted Americans to conclude that their leaders are too staggeringly stupid, incompetent and uncaring to protect them from bad weather, much less a terrorist attack. Now think about this: the citizens of cities under U.S. occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan have been suffering under similar conditions, exacerbated by an identical lack of planning by the same U.S. officials, for nearly 900 days. New Orleans is Baghdad plus water minus two and a half years.

Still wondering why they hate us?

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