Only in America

by Daniel Patrick Welch

You know the year of 1900--that was 60 years ago
when death come howling on the ocean
death calls, you gotta go
--Tom Rush, Wasn’t it a Mighty Storm

"Galveston had a seawall, just to keep the waters down. But the high tide from the ocean spread the water over the town." The worst hurricane in US history saw almost 6000 people drowned in Galveston, Texas a little over a century ago, in a human tragedy immortalized by Tom Rush's mournful 1960 ballad. But it was an event not only remembered in folklore, but enshrined forever in the form of town and city charters across the country. It was, in its time, a wake up call for government, the very idea that mass organization might help in times of crisis. Government was not just there to grease the wheels of "progress" so that the Robber Barrons could continue to pick everyone's pockets. Government might actually be able to help the people.

Something went wrong, I guess. A hundred years of progress later, and the ballad still rings eerily true: "The trains at the station were loaded/ Full of people leaving town/ The trestle gave way with the water/ The trains they went on down." Juxtapose this lyric with the image of thousands of those stranded, with nowhere to go and no means to get there, waiting in the Superdome for salvation while the water rose around them, some of the old and infirm dying for lack of access to food, water, medical care and sanitation.

"Death your hands are clammy/ You got them on my knee/ You come and you took my momma/ won’t you come back after me?" I can hear Tom Rush crooning as I write, and the heartache I feel for Harvey Jackson as his wife's hand slipped from his is not softened by the music. How could such enormous wealth and organization not soften the blow of such a tragedy, after at least a century of lessons learned? For Harvey Jackson and his children, nothing could have helped, and his wife's last plea to "take care of the kids" could not cut any less deep.

But federal officials are taking plenty of heat for the aftermath, and well they should. One of my earliest personal memories of the National Guard was from the Blizzard of '78, when a post was stationed at the end of our street to keep non-essential traffic off the roads. We didn't care--we weren't even in High School, and we had to walk everywhere anyway. But now, with National Guard units called to fight George Bush's war on Iraq, the same scenario is unimaginable. For two years, rumors have been circulating about angry Governors bristling at federal impudence, assuming free reign over their states' Guard units. Connecticut's Governor even went to court over the redeployment of her Air National Guard planes. Cynics and warmongers couldn't imagine what use a state's governor could have for such heavy equipment after all. Why leave them to sit and rust here at home when they can do such good in Baghdad?

Why, indeed? The answer barreled ashore early Sunday morning, leveling large swaths of the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi and Lousiana. As the resulting floods began to fill up the bowl that is New Orleans, stories began to come to light of preparedness budgets cut, of stern warnings about exactly this scenario almost five years ago, and guardsmen unavailable for rescue operations because they had been redeployed to Iraq.

Ask Robert Buras, owner of the Royal Street Grocery, quoted in the Times-Picayune: "I've got to ration stuff, you know. All the National Guard that knows how to fight hurricanes is over in Iraq. They took my cavalry, man!" Now, a few days too late to save god knows how many, the cynics in Karl Rove's damage control rolodex are going all out to help mobilize a military--and PR--response. Thank God the president cut his five-week vacation short! Now, National Guard from all over are beginning to pour into the submerged city, and the feds held a testy and somewhat defensive news conference to assure a jaded public that they were doing the best they could. Of course, they may actually be telling the truth, since such a vast portion of what they can do has been diverted into the administration’s quarter-of-a-trillion dollar boondoggle called Iraq.

It was funny, though--or it would have been if not so infuriating--to watch these thugs try to fend off criticism that maybe, just maybe, the criminal siphoning of all those billions in resources might make it just a tad more difficult to respond to very real emergencies here at home. Michael Chertoff looked sincerely into the camera and told people that, "we understand what you’re going through" if you're stuck on a roof waiting for help. What a crock. When my head explodes from such cognitive dissonance, I have to speak back to the Talking Head on the screen: "If they're on a roof in New Orleans, they’re certainly not watching you, you idiot!" I blurted out. Of course, I realized that it was just a ploy: he was talking to me, to all of us, warily aware that public anger is rising slowly but surely along with the flood waters, the sewage, and the body counts. It's an old trick, to appear to show sympathy for those who can't hear you in order to gain the sympathy of those who can. All those laughable ads with Republican politicians hugging black people? They know they haven’t got a snowball's chance in hell of getting their votes, but if they can make suburban housewives feel just a bit more comfortable about signing on to their racist and classist policies, then it's all worth the huge consulting fees. And, not for nothing, any casual observer of the footage coming out of the gulf coast will notice that the victims are virtually all brown.

Meanwhile torture cheerleader Alberto Gonzalez, also known as Attorney General, was blathering on about how concerned he was about fraudulent charities, not to mention the grave danger of people stealing diapers and food. I was waiting for him to say that anyone caught out after curfew would be forced to stand on a box for two days with a hood over his head and wires attached to his genitals. Cut to the Mayor of San Antonio offering his city’s assistance. WTF? Why the hell is the Mayor of San Antonio on TV talking about the Salvation Army and the Red Cross? I mean, it’s sure nice of him to help, but is this why we have the largest federal budget in history--so that busted cities, whose water systems, roads, and bridges are literally crumbling under the weight of federal neglect, can take up the task of doing the federal government’s job? If there is any purpose at all (and of course I'm not saying there is) for the bloated military budget, for maintaining such a huge army--isn't this it?

But of course, this is the whole point of the neocon agenda, going perfectly to plan. By starving the beast, as they call it, they can let the useless federal government wither and die. Of course, the rank hypocrisy of this idea is revealed by the simultaneous force-feeding of the Pentagon, fattening up like the diseased liver of geese bred for foie gras. No problem there: it's doubleplusgood if you can destroy the wasteful bureaucracy (except for the Pentagon) and line the pockets of your friends at the same time. "Waste" only applies to those programs that don't enrich your already obscenely rich campaign contributors--like programs that help people.

Another song floats into my head, this one bemoaning federal intransigence in the days before Hoover. "President Coolidge come down in a railroad tran/ with a little fat man with note pad in his hand/ President said little fat man isn't it a shame/ what the river has done to this poor cracker's land." It is mostly poor people who die in natural disasters, anyway. But the current little fat man (I can't believe Karl Rove was just a baby when Randy Newman penned that line) knows the president can't appear to be so callous. Yet actions (and budgets, and priorities) speak louder than words. A hundred years later, two world wars and countless tragedies could have taught different lessons than the ones we have apparently learned. A century of filling in wetlands while developers laughed at "tree hugging" environmentalists. How many lives would the cushion of those wetlands--nature's shock absorbers--have saved this week. Instead, We have returned to the days when the role of government was to ease the transfer of wealth into the hands of the already criminally wealthy, and little else. And the refrain of Newman’s song makes a suiting, if depressing, coda for Tom Rush's lead in: "Louisiana--Louisiana--.They’re trying to wash us away/ they’re trying to wash us away."

© 2005 Daniel Patrick Welch. Reprint permission granted with credit and link to Writer, singer, linguist and activist Daniel Patrick Welch lives and writes in Salem, Massachusetts, with his wife, Julia Nambalirwa-Lugudde. Together they run The Greenhouse School. Translations of articles are available in up to 20 languages. Links to the website are appreciated at