"I know this sounds like a stupid question, but how are we supposed to go on as a community? As a people?"
--New Orleans resident in the Superdome, Washington Post
To read the Washington Post's exposè (via Roger Abramson at Pith in The Wind) is to get a Dante-esque view of the Dome as circles of hell. To read it is also to temper those triumphant pictures we see of people being plucked off of roofs in flooded sections with the awareness that they are dropped off to what is essentially a domed neighborhood for refugees where residents may die of dysentery due to failed water and bathroom facilities or where they could possibly be raped or murdered due to a lack of security. This gated community is designed to keep people locked in rather than to keep danger locked out.
The reason the domed neighborhood is hell is not because of idiotic and clueless comparisons of New Orleans to Sodom and Gomorrah. We don't turn to pillars of salt when we see the destruction. But some hearts of on-lookers do turn to stone; even as we watch someone else's community fall upon ruin through no fault of their own; even as we watch priorities shift from people to property; even as some loose cannons call for mustering an exhausted police force for shooting people in the streets while innocent children are probably dying among the tens of thousands who remain trapped in New Orleans.
As the first bus loads of the estimated 23,000 displaced Louisianians are arriving at the Houston Astrodome, their new post-apocalyptic neighborhood, it would be easy to take heart that at the very least they will be getting clean water, functioning facilities, medical treatment, and cots to sleep on--all of which they failed to get for days--just as we took heart when we saw Coast Guard choppers rescuing them from flooded houses. (NOTE: Reports this morning say that fires and gun-fire at the Superdome have delayed the continuing evacuation to the Astrodome).
However, we need to keep in mind that Houston officials did not exactly meet the first bus of Louisianians with open arms. Our televisions are now dominated by pictures of 20-year-old New Orleans kids wielding guns and carrying Adidas and Nike boxes. The deluge of looting pictures is so jading that reports of a 20-year-old kid who commandeered a school bus when New Orleans police told him to get to the Astrodome causes cognitive dissonance. Is it really possible to believe that a kid, who could just as easily be sacking stores, is acting like some kind of Lower 9th Ward Moses or Noah leading a bus load of refugees through the flood and even picking up stragglers along the way? It is believable that Astrodome officials initially denied those first refugees entrance, saying that the spaces were reserved for New Orleans refugees, but it is also ironic.
So, we shouldn't take heart in domed-over benevolence. Instead, we should open our hearts to the very question asked by the young woman in the Washington Post piece: how can they, how can we, as a community, as a people, go on living life under a dome, far from home?
09/01/2005, 11:30 p.m. Update: From MSNBC--the Red Cross reports that the Astrodome is full. Other Louisianians to be shipped elsewhere.