A Tale of Two Disasters

By Tracy Kronzak Oct 26, 2007

I’m not the first or only person who will be drawing parallels between the fires in Southern California and Hurricane Katrina. But what caught my eye this week were several articles in the San Francisco Chronicle that discussed the conditions fire evacuees faced while sheltered at Qualcomm Stadium. The articles made note of free catered food, widescreen TVs, massages, tents, and a strong push by FEMA to ensure the protection and well-being of evacuees – citing “lessons learned” after Katrina evacuees endured horrific conditions at the Louisiana Superdome. Lessons learned… I really want to believe that a new improved FEMA and the federal government have indeed learned some lessons, especially about racism. But something tells me that the experience of evacuees in Southern California is a new patina on an old problem and in fact an excellent distraction from the ongoing bungled response to Katrina. A few issues back, ColorLines magazine did a feature video on how people of color in Los Angeles were taking on preparation for community emergencies themselves because of how unreliable FEMA and the federal government have proven to be, especially when it comes to support for people of color. It’s still a bit too early to even say what stories will emerge from SoCal: How are its many Latino residents going to fare in comparison to the white folks mourning the loss of their apartments while getting a massage at Qualcomm? It’s yet another symptom of the institutional racism that is so pervasive in our country that our government can so readily chalk Katrina up as a learning experience without ever having to reflect on the impact of the lesson. No one is talking about how these “lessons learned” are at the expense of so many people of color: those who endured sub-human treatment at the Superdome, the Katrina evacuees who are still locked out of their homes and unable to return, 9th Ward homeowners still waiting for insurance assistance, renters who lost everything and received no help from any level of government, and the growing number of Black residents who will never be able to return to New Orleans. And if you think this was the first time for this particular lesson, we can always check with the American Indian Downwinders or the participants in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.