Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Après le déluge

Here comes autumn. One minute we're enjoying the last blazing days of a Connecticut summer, and the next, Busyboy and I are filling our pockets with fallen chestnuts on the leisurely walk to daycare. We're doing voluntary carless days, at the suggestion of the youngest member of the household, so we “don’t have to buy too much petrol and we can save our money for bunk beds.”

I have to say we were both pretty disgruntled to see the President claiming this brainwave as his own and solemnly urging the populace not to take “unnecessary car trips.” Mmmm, you mean like this one, George?

So, did you notice how hard I’ve been working to prove Tze-Ming’s calculus about the appalling blog rate of women with jobs and children, versus the fancy-free rest of the world? Thought so. I blinked, and there went half of August, all of September, and a small chunk of October.

What happened? Well, after a fun six-week stint of pretty much 24/7 parenting, incorporating a trip back to New Zealand and the resulting jetlag, came the luxurious return to regular daycare and some quality time with the brand-new computer. Plus, I’m incubating Busytot: The Sequel, which can be a full-time job in itself, especially once you hit the nap-heavy second trimester.

The other thing that took me off the air was Hurricane Katrina. Only in a metaphorical sense; we’re nowhere near the Gulf Coast. But something about September disasters, especially when I’m pregnant and sensitive, really wobbles me. This one unfolded like a bad dream, and frankly, it did my head in.

You know that thought experiment where you design a society on the assumption that you have no control over where you ended up in it? In the last weeks, the veil of ignorance was definitively ripped aside, and the face of American poverty was revealed, for anyone who couldn't already see it: largely black, elderly and very young. The day before the hurricane landed (and two days before the levees broke) I listened to a New Orleans teacher on the radio, talking about lending fifty dollars here and there to his students’ families so that they could afford a tank of gas. And they were the lucky ones who had access to cars.

We all saw the ones who couldn’t get out (and part of what was so distressing was that the average person watching TV in New Zealand or the US knew more, sooner, than the federal government). People who only ever had the clothes on their backs anyway. Bewildered old folk in wheelchairs. Mothers of increasingly inconsolable children, or worse, children that were increasingly difficult to rouse. My heart broke for the mothers of the very young babies -- bottle or breast, either way you need good clean water to make milk. It was a barbaric sight.

The complex, deeply rooted, ongoing legacy of racism was abundantly on display, of course, and has been remarked upon and anatomized by too many others to link here. I was especially intrigued by two articles in the New Yorker: David Remnick on conspiracy theories, and Jon Lee Anderson's fascinating profile of Lionel Petrie and his Ninth Ward neighbourhood, via an account of Petrie's rescue eight days after the flooding.

The irresistible urge to compare yielded some telling similarities and some stark differences. It was like 9/11, except it wasn’t, because the hurricane was forecast in advance, so people could prepare as best as possible, whereas the 9/11 attacks… well, they certainly came as a surprise to those of us who hadn’t got any of the memos. Plus, the city of New Orleans had been there before and knew it might happen again, whereas New York... hmmm. Same buildings, even. Anyway, in New Orleans it only took Bush a couple of days to show up and rally the folks, whereas in New York... yes, well.

There are important differences, of course. Katrina was a natural disaster, as opposed to a deliberate act of aggression. Bin Laden’s hijackers destroyed a workplace, but apart from those who lived in downtown Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, most people had homes to escape to, whereas whole neighbourhoods in Louisiana and Mississippi have been obliterated. In the days after Rudy Giuliani averred that the casualty numbers were uncertain but would be “more than we can bear,” the estimates steadily dropped from five figures to four. Whereas down South, they climbed slowly higher and higher before dropping back to “several thousand,” with the official death toll now at around one thousand -- which is not, it should be pointed out, a small number of people. Most of the bodies are still unidentified nearly six weeks after the fact.

Most of the comparisons also dwelt on the speed or slowness of rescue efforts, and even the massive tsunami of last Christmas revealed a more efficient response. Oddly, the week of the hurricane I was reading about the Tarawera eruption, some hundred and twenty years ago. A proud village and a fun-time tourist attraction destroyed in a flash, followed by weeks of digging survivors out of the rubble and identifying the dead. Except even there, the timeline was not flattering to FEMA: the postmaster at Rotorua sent Morse Code messages to the capital and a rescue effort was launched that same day.

For my money, there were also striking similarities between Katrina and the Kobe earthquake of 1995, especially the mismanaged official response, and the radical inequity of the earthquake's impact.

Some days after the Kobe earthquake, then Prime Minister Murayama visited some survivors camped out in a school gymnasium to offer his condolences. He asked them to hang in there a little longer – “gaman” was the word he used, appealing to the Japanese preference for keeping a stiff upper lip under adversity.

Boy was he surprised when one feisty obaa-san, who like him had lived through the war and seen worse, drew herself up to her full four and a half feet and bellowed that in her opinion they had all persevered quite long enough and would gaman no longer, thank you very much.

Murayama was a genial fellow with spectacular eyebrows, an old-time socialist who had lucked in to the big job as part of a coalition deal. In the weeks after the earthquake, as anger grew over how the rescue effort had been bungled, his political career quickly eroded. The subway sarin attacks, two months later, were the last straw; natural disaster and terrorism combined to topple a government.

Hurricane Katrina is Bush’s Kobe, only instead of one stroppy granny telling him off in front of television cameras, we saw hundreds of sick, tired, sad, and helpless old people in wheelchairs, suffering in the heat. The mainstream media -- which, in the single most encouraging outcome of the whole disaster, finally got its balls back -- stepped up to tell him off. Bush's approval ratings have subsequently reached an all-time low. But will the displaced Louisianans still be living in tent cities four years from now?

We might also think of Iraq, of course; what with by the images of unclaimed bodies, and of children, the elderly, women holding families together, vast ranks of unemployed men trying to scrape by in debilitated neighbourhoods. If it takes two traumas to make a trauma, as Freud suggested -- you don’t truly register the first thud until the second shoe has dropped -- then the resounding boom of Katrina might have finally re-awakened the slumbering public to the ongoing debacle somewhat to the east of here. The (American) body count is similar in both cases. As is the price for reconstruction.

Of course there are differences here, too. Bush promised to rebuild the city of New Orleans just the way it was, only better (him and whose army, and whose several hundred billion dollars?). You could picture tentative hands being raised all over Baghdad, Basra, Falllujah, wondering if it might be at all possible to have the steaming crater on the corner turned back into the little coffee shop that used to be there? Fat chance, guys; I doubt that’s as high on Halliburton’s to-do list as making sure there’s still a Mardi Gras for the tourists to come back to.


Meanwhile, back home it looks like Labour, despite the last minute bad news on the cost of the student loan interest write-off, and despite punting on the long-overdue chance to rejigger the tax thresholds, has scraped in again. Talk about a close shave. How did the wavering voters make their decision, in the end, after a couple of weeks tossing up what they might do with National’s tempting tax cut (new bathroom? Club Med? school fees?)... Maybe they took another look at the rest of the slate -- crypto-racism, global warming denial, cosying up to freaky fundamentalists and all -- and then a long, careful look at what was happening in the US, and asked the old Dr Phil rhetorical question: “So, how’s that workin’ for ya?”


In other news, nice to see a New Zealander on this year's list of Ig Nobel Prize recipients (the prizes awarded to scientific research that "cannot, or should not, be reproduced"). James Watson of Massey University, won the Agricultural History Prize for his scholarly article, "The Significance of Mr Richard Buckley's Exploding Trousers."

And the prize for Literature? It went to:

The internet entrepreneurs of Nigeria, for using email to distribute a bold series of short stories, thus introducing millions of readers to a cast of rich characters, each of whom requires just a small amount of money so as to obtain access to the great wealth they will share with you.

At last, the literature prize goes to someone whose work I've actually read!