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Things like this don't happen in America

By Jessica Axel

Section: Opinions

September 23, 2005

Whats it looking like? I asked my father. I had taken a break from my packing to consult the news, which for the past day or so, had been perpetually turned on. Not good, he replied. The next day, August 29th, just after dawn, we would begin our 12-hour journey to Massachusetts from Cleveland, Ohio. At the same time, it was predicted that Hurricane Katrina would begin her destruction of the Gulf Coast.

Watching the coverage of the impending doom in New Orleans, I found myself being schooled in the geography, politics, and socio-economics of a city I had previously known little about. New Orleans, for example, is almost completely below sea-level. I hadnt known that. And levees? What the heck is a levee? Bye, bye Miss American Pie/Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry? These were not Don McCleans levees. And unfortunately, they most certainly werent dry.

Just over a week later, while the storm is long over, it is clear that Katrina has become something unimaginable. Thousands of people trapped in a flooded city without food or drinking water, waiting for a rescue that is slow in coming. A desperate mayor, a downtrodden police force, a city of impoverished peoplea surrealistic horror about which I cant help but find myself thinking, over and over: Things like this dont happen in America. Things like this dont happen in America. Americans dont wait on rooftops for helicopters to pull them to safety. And yet, many in New Orleans are still waiting. Americans dont get third-world diseases like cholera. And yet, because of the polluted flood waters, at least five people have not only contracted a strain of it, but died from it. These are not things that are supposed to happen in America.

We as a generation have been witnesses to history many times over: we watched the humiliation of a president shamed during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and lived through one of the most trying and controversial presidential elections in history (I remember waking up on the morning after Election Day, 2000, and asking who the new president wasonly to be told that we didnt have one). In 1973, my father watched the Twin Towers go up. In 2001, I saw them come down. We may only be beginning to acquire our political consciousness and our awareness of the world, but we are not strangers to, nor are we ignorant of, the things that happen in it. We are the people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit. Its almost as if the Students for a Democratic Societys Port Huron Statement, written in 1962, was written about us.

Why, then, is it so unfathomableat least to methat the suffering, pain and desperation that we usually reserve to reference countries half a world away, are happening right here, right now, in America? How can, a week after the hurricane, people still be dying of hunger and thirst and disease? We know, after allwe have learned, unfortunatelythat in the 21st century, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility. As many of us are, I am angry and saddened and confused that this is happening in America. I am bewildered that a gorgeous, sun-soaked day in Boston is tempered by a raging nightmare in New Orleans. Many have criticized the Bush administration for its unpreparedness for and slow response to the disasterits focus on so-called Homeland Security (Iraq) rather than on Homeland Security (the United States). While I do not deny that I have my own particular opinions of the Bush administration, I disagree with those who think that now is the time for political mudslinging, name-calling, and accusing. At the end of the day, New Orleansan American cityis still a swamp.

I havent watched TV since leaving Cleveland last week. When asked by my seven-year-old cousin why, I explained to her that it was because my roommate and I dont have one. You dont have a TV? she said in disbelief, thats, like, tragic! Maybe it is. But then again, maybe its not.

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