By Malkia A. Cyril

Katrina has been called a disaster of biblical proportions. And it is. But the disaster is not confined to weather. The loss of life is being compounded by the frightening political decision to withhold rescue services from survivors and instead focus on fighting crime. It seems that Katrina has not only uprooted homes and trees, but also uncovered the stark truth about race in Louisiana. Racial injustice in New Orleans is on fire. And the news coverage of Katrina is fanning the flames.

Over 1 million people with the means to leave fled before the storm, but nearly 150,000 were left behind, trapped by poverty and neglected by disaster plans. Those who got out were mostly affluent and white. Those left behind were not. They represented the poorest 15-20% of New Orleans population and were predominately black. This is not simply the result of a natural disaster. This is the consequence of human decisions about who deserves to live and who should be left to die. And the death toll is still rising. Survivors are floating in stagnant debris-filled water, huddled in attics or on rooftops.

More than 60,000 people have gathered at the Superdome stadium for evacuation and remain there in increasingly horrific conditions. One man couldn't bear it and jumped to his death. In the aftermath of this natural disaster, relief efforts are being hindered by racial mistreatment and racist decisions that are as dangerous as any storm.

Emergency systems and disaster protocol must put life above law. And yet, when it comes to the lives of blacks and poor people in the aftermath of Katrina, looting is the leading headline. Interestingly, in the face of absolute tragedy, President Bush's message is about zero tolerance for crime and not about encouraging and applauding the humanity of those helping each other to live. There is no question that survival is the primary issue of the day. And yet Reuters reported that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered police to suspend rescue efforts and arrest people instead. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco told reporters that she will use the 12,500 National Guard troops in or en route to New Orleans to bring law and order to the area, and not to continue rescuing survivors. Officials have either ceased or redirected the relief and evacuation efforts of the Red Cross, FEMA, local police and the National Guard. Black and poor residents of New Orleans are paying for this decision with their lives.

While the decision to arrest people for trying to survive seems misplaced, it could have something to do with the news coverage of Katrina, which has been saturated with descriptions of blacks chest-deep in water looting food, while referring to whites in virtually the same circumstances as survivors finding food. Or perhaps it is because almost no news outlets have even mentioned the demographics of those left behind or raised life and death questions about how evacuation plans, search and rescue operations, relief distribution, and emergency care are being influenced by race.

Where were the resources and political will that would have prevented this tragedy from reaching such deadly proportions? In the aftermath of this devastating natural disaster, the media can expose the racism and help prevent the man-made disaster at hand? Even CBS reported that in one neighborhood the police helped homeless survivors carry stolen supplies from Walmart to another area that had been hit harder. Across the country concerned communities are demanding that the arrests for so-called looting should cease and search and rescue efforts should continue unhindered, that all resources should be used to evacuate survivors immediately, and people should be provided with clean water and food. Not everyone agrees that your race or income should determine whether you survive the storm.


Malkia Cyril works with the Youth Media Council of Oakland, CA.