The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Picking up lives

The first few days were a natural disaster. The last four days were a man-made disaster.
- Phillip Holt, 51, who was rescued from his home on Saturday

Several thousand elementary and secondary school-age children have been emergency-enrolled in Texas and other out-of-state schools. Universities across the United States are cooperating to last-minute take in as many stranded students as possible, at rates ranging from utterly "free" (treated as a visiting student, tuition considered to have been paid at the home school) to waiving the standard out-of-state fees (which can multiply tuition up to eight times base): in most cases credits will be recognised at the home university and where students are in their final year, their degrees will be issued by the home university. The ability of individual campuses in the area to cope with the current situation range from Tulane (whose president is currently working out of Houston) having cancelled its fall semester but expecting to reopen in time for the spring semester; to classes through the Internet and possibly satellite campuses starting October by the University of New Orleans; to the attempts by Dillard to focus on restoring the main campus itself with some assistance from Maine's Bowdoin College. Links to the current situation of these and other hurricane-affected campuses can be found through Sallie Mae, a private scholarship company. In addition to refinancing and automatic payment relief for affected students, Sallie Mae has extended an offer of a one-time zero-interest emergency loan of $1000 to students at campuses affected by the hurricane: one assumes this sum will be supplemented by FEMA disaster assistance.

Some two hundred New Orleans police officers have abandoned their jobs. Some turned in their badges. Some told their superiors they were leaving. Some stopped showing up. A few police officers remain unaccounted for after the storm, whether because they cannot contact their precincts or because they are among the dead is unknown. It is rumoured that two men stopped in Baton Rouge on suspicion of driving a stolen New Orleans squad car were in fact New Orleans officers who had abandoned their uniforms and were trying to reach a north Louisiana town. It is fact that two New Orleans veteran police officers have committed suicide, including the department spokesman.

To generalise what is happening in New Orleans to a function of poverty is not only to subscribe to the stupid/poor/lazy paradigm: but to shape social conditions so as to ensure prophetic fulfillment. In order to have any meaning, initial comparison can only be made against a city of parallel means in an income- and technology-comparable country, with approximately an equivalent poverty rate and wealth/poverty ratio, which has undergone a multi-day disaster with near-total infrastructure damage. The only situation I can think of which comes close to approximating these conditions is the 1998 ice storm which shut down Montréal: between four and eight days straight -- anywhere from two to eight inches -- of ice, with Montréal at the heart of the storm; and a state of emergency declared even in the nation's capital. This thing grew from an average ice storm into a significant multi-day disaster without any advance warning of what its actual severity would end up being. All transportation lines cut; many would end up needing complete rebuilding. Twenty-five deaths, 100,000 people in shelters, water supplies contaminated, communications severed. Three weeks after the storm's end, 700,000 persons still remained without power in the middle of a Canadian winter.
But in the case of Montréal, those affected came together. Generators, chainsaws, and electrical workers immediately started arriving from every part of Canada. The 14,000 odd military troops who started arriving on the fourth and fifth day were welcomed -- even though the last time that many troops had been in Montréal was for use against many of the residents of Montréal (in 1970, during the October Crisis), during the only ever peacetime use of the Canadian War Measures Act (replaced with the Emergencies Act in 1988).
Was it only the cold which kept looting and attacks against authority figures almost non-existent?


At Wed Dec 14, 06:02:00 PM, Blogger Tenebris said...

More on Katrina elsewhere. Here is common empathy, and such comparison from which we can maybe all learn. Internal analysis I leave to the other blog.


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