Fellow Fulbrighter Elisabeth Fraller recommends the Common Dreams Newscenter, especially an article in the Canadian Globe & Mail. It argues: "Every-man-for-himself ethos serves Americans poorly in times of crisis when people must pull together."
In much poorer societies, such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka after the Boxing Day tsunami, or in more polarized societies like Montreal during the 1998 ice storm, scenes of looting, violence and selfish desperation did not occur. But the large U.S. cities of the South have a very different sort of group psychology, in which faith in individual fortune replaces the fixed social roles that keep other places aloft during crises.
While the Katrina crisis brought out the worst in some people, it also brought out the best in many others, as Time Magazin columnist Tony Karon points out:
For every rapist and thug that rampaged in New Orleans, there were hundreds, thousands of ordinary people maintained their humanity and their sense of solidarity with one another even when it became clear that they had been abandoned by their government and the foundations of their society appear to be ripped out from under them.
According to two paramedics, who were in New Orleans for a conference and got stranded, the media did not report about many heroes, for example:
The maintenance workers who used a fork lift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers, who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running. The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretching over blocks to share the little electricity we had in order to free cars stuck on rooftop parking lots. Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive. Doormen who rescued folks stuck in elevators. Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, "stealing" boats to rescue their neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters. Mechanics who helped hot-wire any car that could be found to ferry people out of the City. And the food service workers who scoured the commercial kitchens improvising communal meals for hundreds of those stranded.
The two paramedics say that they witnessed major failures by the local police and others. Fulbright Alumnus Harry recommended the above quoted report published by the Emergency Medical Service Network.
The NYT and others interviewed the two as well:
Police agencies to the south of New Orleans were so fearful of the crowds trying to leave the city after Hurricane Katrina that they sealed a crucial bridge over the Mississippi River and turned back hundreds of desperate evacuees, two paramedics who were in the crowd said. The paramedics and two other witnesses said officers sometimes shot guns over the heads of fleeing people, who, instead of complying immediately with orders to leave the bridge, pleaded to be let through, the paramedics and two other witnesses said. The witnesses said they had been told by the New Orleans police to cross that same bridge because buses were waiting for them there.
Harry also recommends a witness report by Clark Warner in the North Denver News. He says that a Louisiana State Senator organized a large convoy of experienced boaters from Lafayette to New Orleans, but that the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, controlled by FEMA, ordered the citizen rescue group home, saying that the water level was too low for their boats, with which they disagreed. Warner is "immensly frustrated" that he could not save lives.
While such first hand perspectives are often useful, when no professional journalists are around, they should also be treated with some caution.
If you, dear reader, see reports that support or contradict these stories, please mention them in the comments section.
What is clear is that while some criminals exploited the chaos due to Katrina and overwhelmed authorities, many Southerners tried to help the people in need.