A few weeks ago, before the systematic failure of rescue and recovery efforts became evident, I was puzzling over human foolishness in the face of the incredible forces of nature. Shortly thereafter, the Katrina story became one of racism, cronyism, corruption, classism, and incredible bungling at every level of government. The media became part of the problems, even as they were exposing other problems. Innuendo, unsubstantiated rumors, and outright lies were reported and repeated, without witnesses, without facts, without confirmation. Invariably these lies and rumors depicted the poor and desperate of Louisiana and Mississippi as violent degenerates. For days, the media accepted the party line of the administration, until even the most jaded reporters were choking with outrage over the constant bungling, denial and spin, needless deaths and misery, and blatant racism and classism.

Another horrifying aspect of this was the classism evident in so much of America’s surly response to the misery of Katrina’s victims. It’s become wildly obvious that most americans only have sympathy for the impoverished of other countries. The poor lived in New Orleans because there was at least some work there, even if it was mostly feeding and entertaining the tourists who came for that genuine gumbo. Louisiana and Mississippi have a level of systemic poverty which has nothing to do with welfare mothers or lazy bums. There’s little work, lousy wages, lousy schools, corrupt government and law enforcement, bad health care, toxic waste, and rampant racism to blame. How easy it has been for our bigots to forget that the poor lived in the lowest parts of New Orleans because the wealthy lived in the highest parts. The least among us, those without cars to drive to safety, or cash to buy food and fuel, or credit cards to buy bus rides out of town, those turned back by armed men as they sought refuge on the high ground of white suburbs, are seen as scum by so many in this country. How shameful that every black carrying a burden was a ‘looter’, while whites were ‘scavengers’, in media representations.

Having seen the bile spewing from my countrymen about self-sufficiency and individual responsibility, I want to make it clear that I am not in that camp of bigots. My question, “Is there blame?”, pointed to the “enabling behavior” of governments that issue building permits in swamps, that strip the funding allocated for levee and pump maintenance, that recommend evacuations without considering those unable to escape unless transported, that steal the funds allocated for emergency measures, that strip FEMA, then pack it with incompetent cronies. I thought of insurance companies that use the premiums of those who live in sturdy little homes far from the storm surge to pay the claims of the McMansion owners whose multimillion dollar beach homes should never have been built. I thought about the corruption and cronyism that sent millions of dollars of FEMA money to heavily republican Dade county after Frances came through florida, passing three counties to the north, more than 100 miles. The communities hit hardest by several hurricanes that year, democratic St Lucie and Indian River counties, where billions of dollars in damage was done, each received less FEMA assistance than Dade county, which didn’t even experience tropical storm forces.

I spoke then of the wisdom of building on barrier islands, hardly knowing that an object lesson was waiting in the wings. We can only hope that the folks crawling north on the roads from Galveston will not be trapped in their cars as Rita floods the land around them or flings their gas starved SUVs off the roads.

Will Rita teach the lesson that we didn’t learn from Katrina, to plan our settlements a little better? Will the citizens say “no more” to subsidizing wealthy fools who build on shifting sands? Most of all, will these disasters finally show us how hollow the promises of “Homeland Security” are?