Of Faulty Comparisons and Racial Animosity: Nashville, New Orleans and the Politics of Disaster

As kids go, the two upon whom I have managed to bestow my last name are pretty awesome. Yet, as with all children, there are things they do–as part of the natural process of ego development–that drive me nuts. For instance, the eldest, though she is normally kind and supportive, occasionally drifts into the irritating habit of building up her own efforts or performance by way of tearing down the efforts or performances of others, say, her own younger sister. So, when the 6 year old does something in school, or dance, or on the piano that merits some praise, the 8 year old sometimes feels the need to mention how much better she can do it, rather than reveling in her sister’s hard work and accomplishments (and being justly impressed with her own). I know, it’s normal and all-too-common for older sibs (and at other times, she does heap praise on her sister which more than makes up for it), but still, it’s obnoxious as hell.

But here’s the thing: as aggravating as this kind of behavior can be when demonstrated by a second grader, it is infinitely worse when evinced by adults. The need to tear others down so as to build oneself up is childlike behavior, thus, sufferable in children. But when the fully grown act like this, we have a clinical name for it: narcissism. And a less clinical but equally accurate term for those who do it: assholes. Not cute, not a phase, but a deep-seated personality flaw.

Case in point, in the wake of the recent catastrophic flooding in Nashville–which did nearly $2 billion in damage, claimed around two dozen lives, destroyed thousands of homes and did incalculable harm to several iconic businesses and landmarks–there have been two distinct narratives developing, both locally in Middle Tennessee and on a national level. One of these is an uplifting one, which reflects well on the state of humanity. The other is crass, and inherently rooted in racial and class biases that should have no place in discussions of events such as these.

The first narrative is a justifiably proud one, issued since the flooding by Nashville residents and those with ties to our city. It is a narrative that revolves around the way in which, in the wake of tragedy, so many people have pulled together, volunteered to clear debris or to rebuild damaged structures, or just pitched in however they could to help their neighbors (or in many cases, people they don’t even know). No doubt about it: these individuals demonstrate the decency of average, everyday people in moments of crisis.

But the second narrative, as articulated by far too many in the past two weeks, while it praises those local efforts, does so specifically by attempting to contrast the good and decent people of Nashville with the presumably undesirable and indecent folks in certain unnamed but easily identifiable other places, who have in recent years experienced massive flooding. In other words, the black and poor of New Orleans, inundated when the levees protecting their city gave way to flood waters generated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And so we have been subjected to claims by Nashville columnist David Climer (of the local daily, The Tennessean), that the reason the flooding here didn’t receive enough media attention was because in order to get headlines, you have to “start looting.” But, as Climer made sure to point out, in his May 9 essay, “We’re better than that. Our city never lost control.” Got that? We are good. They are bad. Praise us. Screw them.

Or then there was the blog entry of some guy named Patten Fuqua, whose normal forays into the world of prose involve such earth-shattering subject matter as professional hockey in general, and the Nashville Predators in particular, but who in the aftermath of the flood decided to wade into the waters of social commentary, much to the detriment of humanitarian decency. To wit his insistence, as with Climer’s, that the reason for the media giving little attention to our suffering was because of a lack of violence

“Did you hear about looting?” Fuqua asked. “Did you hear about crime sprees?” Then, answering his own question, he noted, “No…you didn’t. You heard about people pulling their neighbors off of rooftops. No…we didn’t loot…that speaks a lot for our city. A large portion of why we were being ignored was that we weren’t doing anything to draw attention to ourselves. We were handling it on our own.” Got it? We are good. They are bad. Praise us. Screw them.

Fuqua’s piece was considered so valuable–no doubt for this sociopolitical slam at poor black folks in New Orleans–that Rush Limbaugh actually read from it on the air, alongside an even more putrid effort by Nashville-area blogger, Christian homeschooler and mother of nine, Rhonda Robinson, who argues that because Nashvillians refused to be victims, “calling for a faster cape-clad Uncle Sam” to save us in the wake of tragedy, the media ignored our suffering. Got it? We are good. They are bad. Praise us. Screw them.

That Rush would carry forward such a compare-and-contrast narrative in the wake of human suffering is no surprise. He did the same thing back in 2008 when flooding ravaged parts of Iowa, Missouri and down-state Illinois, insisting:

“I see people working together. I see people trying to save their property…I don’t see a bunch of people running around waving guns at helicopters. I don’t see a bunch of people running shooting cops. I don’t see a bunch of people raping people on the street…I see the heartland of America. When I look at Iowa and when I look at Illinois, I see the backbone of America.”

But just as Limbaugh’s previous diatribe was ill-informed (after all, reports of mass violence in New Orleans were determined to be false, and there were never reports of “rapes in the streets” or shooting of cops–although we now know that cops were shooting at innocent black people, as were roving bands of white terrorists), so too is the recent “look how much more civilized we are” narrative a study in ignorance.

As someone who has lived in both Nashville and New Orleans (the former for my first eighteen years and the last fourteen, and the latter for the decade inbetween), I feel uniquely positioned to comment on the two places, and the way in which the tragedies that have recently befallen both bear no reasonable resemblance to one another. While the suffering here has been real–indeed we have friends who have lost everything, and the place where my wife and I were wed, the Opryland Hotel, has been devastated by the flooding–the magnitude of what happened in late August and early September of 2005 in New Orleans far eclipses that which has transpired of late in Nashville. Rather than the flooding post-Katrina, the Nashville flooding has been more like that which New Orleans experienced in May of 1995, when between 10 and 20 inches of rain fell (depending on what part of the metropolitan area one lived in), over an 8 hour period. 56,000 homes were damaged, about a billion dollars in damage was done, the streets were largely under water (including my own) but there was no looting, no mass violence, and no media coverage either.

Among the significant differences between Katrina and the Nashville flood, consider:

The inundation of Nashville, while serious, was nowhere near as total in its impact as the flooding of New Orleans. In New Orleans, power was out for weeks for almost everyone in the city, as was access to potable water. This, compared to about 21,000 homes which experienced a loss of power in Nashville, most for only 24 hours, a few thousand for two days, and a smaller group for as many as three. Unlike New Orleans, Nashvillians never lost access to drinkable water, thanks in large part to the Herculean efforts of inmates at the county jail, who volunteered to sandbag the only functioning water treatment facility, after its companion plant was overcome by flooding–a detail conveniently left out by Rush Limbaugh and others who have praised the “law abiding” and decent people of Nashville in the wake of the flood. Apparently some not-so-law-abiding folks also deserve some credit.

In New Orleans, thousands were trapped in their homes, unable to escape to safety because of how suddenly the city flooded once the levees broke: one of the reasons that over a thousand died. In Nashville, the rain lasted for the better part of two days, giving people time in most cases to escape to higher ground. Not to mention, while more than a third of New Orleanians (and a clear majority of the poor) didn’t own automobiles with which they could have escaped, Nashville is one of the most car-dependent cities in the nation, meaning that it was far easier for Nashvillians to get to safety than their counterparts in the Crescent City.

In New Orleans, between 30,000 and 40,000 people were trapped without food or adequate water supplies in downtown evacuation centers, while relief efforts were blocked by officials with the Department of Homeland Security, which told groups like the Red Cross that they could not enter the city to provide relief. In Nashville, no such concentrated suffering occurred, and the Red Cross and other relief agencies were allowed to operate from the get-go.

And contrary to the claims of conservatives and other assorted know-nothings, New Orleanians were no more clamoring for government assistance than Nashvillians were. The difference? Nashvillians actually got the help far quicker. So, for instance, FEMA officials were on the ground in Nashville before the rain even stopped, according to Governor Phil Bredesen (this is what happens when your FEMA is being run by people with experience in disaster relief, rather than experience judging Arabian Horse Shows, and even then doing a shitty job with that, as was the case with Michael “You’re Doing a Heckuv’a Job Brownie,” Brown under the Bush Administration). Within a week of the flooding, over 30,000 people in the Nashville area had applied for FEMA funds, and officials had disbursed nearly $80 million in relief. More than a thousand residents in the state’s wealthiest county (and one of the wealthiest in the entire country) had applied for FEMA assistance within a week of the flooding. You don’t have to “call for a faster cape-clad Uncle Sam” to save you, in the words of the above-mentioned blogger and breeder-for-Jesus, Rhonda Robinson, when Uncle Sam is already there, moving at the speed of sound to get you what you need before you’ve even asked.

Government assistance is, in fact, central to the “saving” of Nashville, contrary to the individualistic, pseudo-libertarian narrative being floated by people like Fuqua. Indeed, conservative U.S. Senator and former Governor, Lamar Alexander has made sure of it: securing an additional $200 million in government aid to the area as part of the latest spending bill to make its way through Congress. Of course, even Alexander had to get in on the implicit New Orleans bashing as a way to justify the added appropriation, noting that he didn’t want Tennessee to be “penalized” because residents had opted to work together and rebuild rather than “complaining and looting.”

Additionally, Nashvillians will no doubt begin to rely on the National Flood Insurance Program in the wake of this tragedy–a government effort created because private insurers regularly refuse to write policies for flood damage–and the city is considering floating several municipal bonds to pay for cleanup, as well as tapping government “rainy day” funds to facilitate the effort. None of these are private, voluntary efforts, but quite public, state and federal government-based relief. The Tennessee Department of Transportation–a government agency–has awarded emergency contracts that will be paid for with government money, to repair damaged interstates and overpasses. Whatever can’t be paid for with state funds will be covered by FEMA.

Government agencies are making both food stamps and small cash payments available for those victimized by the flood, flooded businesses are getting loan assistance from the Small Business Administration–a government agency–and attorneys with the local Legal Aid office (another entity that is in part publicly supported) are offering to help residents who may have legal needs in the wake of the flooding, whether it means suing insurers who shirk their responsibilities, or resolving conflicts with landlords, banks or repair contractors

Indeed, the desire for government help extends even to many of the city’s wealthiest individuals. In a recent conversation with my wife, one of the other parents at the dance school where our daughters (and his) take lessons, lamented that many of his own far-from-moderate income friends were proudly announcing their intention to put off making repairs to their own homes so they could get FEMA to pay for it instead.

So neither the pure-as-snow, no handout imagery of Nashvillians, nor the government dependent criminal imagery of New Orleanians is nearly as accurate as some seem to think. Fact is, in both places most people tried to help others. Unfortunately the media in New Orleans focused on the statistical handful who looted, rather than the much larger number who tried to organize supply lines, get limited food and water to the elderly and children, and keep everyone safe in the midst of inhumane conditions. That five years after Katrina, reactionary voices continue to bash the people there–who still don’t have a functioning mental health care infrastructure (despite tens of thousands having been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic-Stress)–only indicates the venality of American conservatives. These are people who, like children, can sometimes only manage to build themselves up by tearing others down. And this they do, even as the people they demean continue to suffer, with no media attention save the negative attention heaped upon them by those seeking to score political points via their own ignorance.

And as with children, it’s long past time that we, the adults, gave them a time out.

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