Monday, December 19, 2005

Drowning in Stereotypes

Two of America's great newspapers ran stories with weekend on those who died in as a result of the negligent failure of the federal levees after . The NYT article is a poignant tale of those who died, gleaned from records released to date by officials.

The LA Times story, Katrina Killed Across Class Lines, starts out to clear the air of stereotypes, then quickly descends into tossing those same cliches around like Mardi Gras beads. Worse, they miss the reallly import nuggest of data they are reporting on.

The LAT article looks at the neighborhoods destroyed by the collapse of the under-designed and poorly constructed levees, and starts out well. "[R]residents killed by Hurricane Katrina were almost as likely to be recovered from middle-class neighborhoods as from the city's poorer districts". But the article relies heavily on observations by Joachim Singelmann, director of the Louisiana Population Data Center at Louisiana State University, and Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella.

Campanella tells the LAT:
Campanella said he was not surprised at the even distribution of bodies between the city's poorer and more affluent neighborhoods. He noted that 70% of the identified Katrina victims in New Orleans were older than 60, frequently lifelong residents who had ridden out other hurricanes and refused to evacuate. Elderly people are more likely to be wealthier and to live in wealthier neighborhoods.

Mr. Campanella offers not indication of why he thinks elderly people are more likely to be wealthy. He may have been associated with Tulane University, but his daily commute must must involved airlifting in and out of the campus from some safe, gated community far away, to be able to make such a ridiculous assertion about the elderly of New Orleans.

The wealthy neighborhood Campanella and other in the stories mention is Lakeview. I was born into this neighborhood, but grew up in Lake Vista. My parents moved up to Lake Vista after they had "arrived", very much in the sense of the term arriviste. Until recently, the affluent moved North of Robert E. Lee Boulevard and left Lakeview behind them.

Most of those elderly residents of Lakeview had lived there their entire lives, had moved into the once modest suburb long before the builders of the late McMansions arrived on the scene. To suggest that, because they lived in company with the McMansion builders they were wealthy, is ridiculous, so it's not surprising that Campanella and the LAT offer no supporting data for this blithe assertion.

The LAT does point out that not everyone who died in the Ninth Ward was poor. They offer up one gentleman who "lived comfortably" but was moving out of the Ninth into Gentilly. What they missed is the well reported fact that the Ninth Ward had a home ownership rate higher than the rest of the city. In spite of the plague of crime and drugs that had come to it, the Ninth Ward was--like Lakeview once was--a place where working middle class people went to buy homes.

What the LAT means to say, but delicately and disingenuously avoids stating outright, is that it was not about race. I would agree to that proposition. It was, very much about class. The working class people of St. Bernard and the Ninth Ward died in much the same way. The elderly, generally not among the wealthiest citizens of our nation, died everywhere.

If this article sought to clear the air about who died and why in New Orleans, they missed the boat. Those who died were elderly, that is clear from the data. That some were affluent is mere speculation on their part, and I would offer my own thirty years observations in the city to counter that most were likely not.

Those who died were those without the means to readily evacuate, either due to age and infirmity or because they lacked the resources to pay for it. For the elderly and sick, the stories of their peers who died from the stress of evacuation before Hurricane Hugo gave them pause. They had lived through other storms, and better to gamble they would survive this one rather than die on the side of a highway.

Some stayed because they were told leaving early would cost them their jobs, which for someone hanging on to the edge of the middle-class, amounts to choosing between the risk of death and the certainty of poverty. When it because clear that they must go or risk death, it was too late. Others stayed because the entire store of wealth they had set aside in the world was their home, and in their drug and crime torn neighborhoods, they stayed behind to protect what little they had.

As another Tulane scholar, Elizabeth Furell, points out here, many were so rooted in New Orleans that had no extended social network of friends or family outside of the city to turn to when they could not find or afford a place to evacuate to. (This is exacerbated when my own relatively affluent and sophisticated family has a hard time finding a hotel, because so many people make two or three reservations when a storm threatens to ensure they have a convenient place to stay. Then, when others call, they find no room at the inn).

Those who stayed and died in Lakeview and in the Ninth Ward and in St. Bernard did so because most had no other real option.

The NYT article is a must read, cataloging the circumstances of those among the victims of the levee failures whose names were released by officials or by their families.

The NYT does its own statistical analysis, but more importantly, peers behind the numbers of who died and where to bring us the tales of how and sometimes why they died.

Most victims were 65 or older, but of those below that age, more than a quarter were ill or disabled...almost three-quarters of the black victims examined by The Times and almost half the white victims lived in neighborhoods where the average income was below $43,000, the city's overall average. In New Orleans, the median income for whites is almost twice what it is for blacks. Many, if not most, were Louisiana natives, and virtually all were members of the working class - nurses, janitors, barbers, merchant marines.

Read this article quick, before it disappears behind the subscription only/buy this article screen. Putting names and faces and circumstances on the statistics is too important to this story. Hell, if you missed it, drop my a line by the email link below and I'll send you a copy I saved off. If a national emergency frees the President from having to follow the law, then I feel free to disregard the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in response to the national emergency on the Gulf Coast.

I, too, appreciated the human side of the NYTimes article.

They also mentioned that (lack of) transportation was an evacuation issue for only 25 of the famililes they talked to (they also are clear it isn't scientific).

I agree with your likely assessment of the elderly. While I suspect Campanella based that conclusion on assumptions of years = wealth accumulation, the elderly victims of Katrina were - like most - unlikely to have been wealthy.
Obviously Mr Campanella's opinion of New Orleans' elderly as being affluent is a bit out of touch with reality.
We must have this kind of publicity in the bigger urban centers. Bravo to responsible reporting, even if it is sometimes innaccurate as travelingmermaid noted.

This will have discussions generated at Christmas dinners all over the east coast and all over the west coast. Positive results will follow.

If we wish to get the support of the likes of Mr. Shays (R. - Conn) we need this discussion.
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