New Orleans, Mogadishu
Been following the coverage about the aftermath of hurricane Katrina for the last couple of days and the whole thing has brought a lot of issues to the surface. (Boing boing has been an incredibly valuable source of information, jamie has written a nice summary mid last week and i also have rediscovered tomdispatch (they should fix their rss feed though). Now it seems that the situation is loosening up a bit, and it looks like there will be much less casualties than feared earlier (the total will stay well under 1000 if you ask me).
To me the most insane aspect of the whole story is the incredibly militarized reaction to this catastrophe. While there have been countless reports of armed gangs that supposedly have been looting killing and raping i have yet to see something that convinces me that these things have actually taken place on a larger scale than ususal: most of the stories have been based on hearsay and i have not come across one report that presented actual victims. Would be interesting to know if there are statistics about fire-arms-related casualties and injuries. Given the fact that almost every official involved in the rescue operation now seems to wear a kevlar vest and an assault rifle and half of them seem to be riding around in armoured personal carriers, one might assume that there must have been heavy losses among the rescue crews in the first 4 or 5 days which forced them to rund around as if they wehere in an actual war. But given the fact that there haven been no dead-hero stories about killed rescue workers i guess it is safe to assume that none of them got hurt, which makes the whole assault rifle carrying business pretty hard to understand (unless one assumes that rescue crews are mainly white and are just scared to to venture into a city populated by impoverished Africans Americans).
The insanity of this situation was best captured in a picture i saw a couple of days ago (i tried to find it back but image search on the net is still a pretty hopeless affair): a bunch of white males in civilian clothes with assault rifles, body armor and ridiculous sun glasses on the back of a pickup truck riding through a submerged street. the caption said something like ‘Police officers patrolling in New Orleans’. If the their vests would not have had ‘police’ and ‘sheriff’ written all over them one might have taken them for private contractors a.k.a mercenaries. The whole scene reminded me of Mogadishu during the height of the civil(?) war in the early nineties. the imagery of that conflict was more or less dominated by technicals: modified pickup trucks with groups of armed – in this case black – males on them. Back then the technicals were the most visible symbol of the ‘failed state’ in Somalia. It is rather ironic that the same configuration is supposed to be ensuring law and order in the US now.
Update (31.09.05): Todays International Herald Tribune runs a story (‘Rumors fueled tales of looting in New Orleans’) that seems to support both my assumptions made in this post. according to the article the total number of casualties stands at 845 and
a review of available evidence shows that some, though not all , of the most alarming stories where figments of frightened imagination […]. During six days when the Superdome was used as a shelter, the chief of the New Orleans Police Department’s sex crime unit, Lieutenant David Benelli sai he and his officers lived inside the dome and investigated every rumor of rape or atrocity. In the end they made two arrests for attempted sexual assault and concluded that the other attacks had not happened. “I think it was urban myth” Benelli said.