When tourists returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, there was a new site to see: disaster. Suddenly — in addition to going on a Ghost Tour, visiting the Backstreet Cultural Museum, and lunching at Dooky Chase’s — one could see the devastation heaped upon the Lower Ninth Ward. Suddenly buses full of strangers with cameras were rumbling through the neighborhood as it tried to get back on its feet.
A sociology major at Michigan State University, Kiara T. Caviness, sent along this photograph of a homemade sign propped up in the Lower Ninth, shaming visitors for their “disaster tourism.”
(Credit: Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com; found here)
Disaster tourism is criticized for objectifying the suffering of others. Imagine having lost loved ones and seen your house nearly destroyed. After a year out of town, you’re in your nastiest clothes mucking sludge out of your bottom floor, fearful that the money will run out before you can get your house, the house that your grandmother bought and passed down to you through your mother, put back together. Imagine that — as you push a wheelbarrow out into the sunlight, blink as you adjust to the brightness, and push your hair off your forehead, leaving a smudge of mud — a bus full of cameras flash at you, taking photographs of your trauma, effort, and fear. And then they take that photo back to their cozy, dry home and show it to their friends, who ooh and aah about how cool it was that they got to see the aftermath of the flood.
The person who made this sign… this is what they may have been feeling.
News media are comparing Hurricane Irene to Hurricane Katrina in ways that allow us to forget that Hurricane Katrina was a humanmade disaster, but in one way, these events are similar – prisoner evacuation. New Orleans officials chose not to evacuate 7,000 inmates, some of whom were trapped in flooded cells and later left on a bridge for days without food and water, as detailed in this post. Officials in New York have made the same decision with Hurricane Irene.
Elizabeth Furth, a former student who has participated in rebuilding efforts in New Orleans, sent in this map showing that Rikers Island is not part of the City’s evacuation plan:
Riker’s Island is the unzoned white blob in this close up:
Mayor Bloomberg announced that Riker’s Island would not be evacuated at a recent press conference, despite the fact that the island is surrounded by areas with the second highest evacuation rating (Zone B). Other New York islands on the map are in Zone A (mandatory evacuation) or Zone B, but Riker’s has no evacuating rating, perhaps because the Department of Corrections doesn’t have an evacuation plan. According to the New York Times blog, “no hypothetical evacuation plan for the roughly 12,000 inmates that the facility may house on a given day even exists. Contingencies do exist for smaller-scale relocations from one facility to another.”
Solitary Watch reports that Rikers Island was built on landfill, which is especially vulnerable to disasters. Rikers Island may weather Hurricane Irene without incident, but this disaster has again revealed how prisoners are considered disposable in times of crisis.
More than a quarter of people living in New Orleans in August of 2005 lived below the poverty line. Many of the poor in New Orleans stayed at home to weather the storm. Why?
Twenty-seven percent of New Orleanians didn’t own a car, making evacuation even more difficult and expensive than it would otherwise be.
People without the means to leave are also the most likely to rely on the television, as opposed to the radio or internet, for news. TV news began warning people how bad the storm would be only 48 hours before it hit; some people, then, had only 48 hours to process this information and make plans.
Poor people are more likely than middle and upper class people to never leave where they grew up. This means that they were much less likely to have a network of people outside of New Orleans with whom they could stay, at the same time that they were least able to afford a motel room.
For those who were on government assistance, living check-to-check, it was the end of the month. Their checks were due to arrive three days after the hurricane. It was also back-to-school time and many were extra cash poor because they had extra expenses for their children.
…14% were physically disabled, 23% stayed in New Orleans to care for a physically disabled person, and 25% were suffering from a chronic disease… Also,
• 55% did not have a car or a way to evacuate
• 68% had neither money in the bank nor a useable credit card
• 57% had total household incomes of less than $20,000 in the prior year
• 76% had children under 18 with them in the shelter
• 77% had a high school education or less
• 93% were black
• 67% were employed full or part-time before the hurricane
The city failed to get information to their most vulnerable residents in time and they failed to facilitate their evacuation. The empty buses in flood water, buses that could have been filled with evacuees prior to the storm, is a testament to this failure.
This is an excerpt from a much longer account of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, published at Caroline Heldman’s blog. Katrina landed on the gulf coast on August 29th, 2005.
Of the many people who did not or could not evacuate New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Katrina, prisoners were especially helpless. The American Civil Liberties Union gathered testimony from 400 of the 7,000 people locked up in New Orleans Prison at the time of Katrina, including approximately 100 juveniles.
Many reported being left in their cells while the water rose above their heads; being beaten and sprayed with mace once evacuated (to state maximum security prisons); and left on Interstate-10 in the hot sun for days without food or water. An entire building with about 600 prisoners was left behind in the evacuation process and weren’t rescued for days (source).
Most of the 7,000 prisoners had been charged with misdemeanor offenses and would have been released within a few weeks, even if convicted. But Governor Blanco effectively suspended habeas corpus (due process; right to a speedy trial) for six months, so some were incarcerated for over a year – doing “Katrina time.” “The court system shut its doors, the police department fell into disarray, few prosecutors remained, and a handful of public defenders could not meet with, much less represent, the thousands detained” (source). Prison officials deny that anyone died in the crisis, despite several reports of deaths from both police officers and prisoners (source).
The Orleans Parish Prison continues to have civil rights concerns. In 2009, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department found that conditions at OPP violate inmates’ constitutional rights. The report found that prisoners experience violence from other prisoners, excessive force from guards, are not provided adequate medical services, and live in unsanitary conditions with pests.
This hour-long BBC video documents their experiences:
When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, the twin disasters received a lot of media attention. However, it didn’t take long before concerns about the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors became a major focal point of media coverage. I remember first hearing about the explosion that damaged the outer containment building at one of the reactors. Every few hours brought more news accounts that seemed to indicate impending disaster — possible radiation clouds set to arrive in Tokyo within hours, evacuations of employees from the reactors, more explosions, the possibility that a full core meltdown would occur. Officials in the U.S. expressed concern about the 20-kilometer (12 1/2-mile) evacuation zone established by the Japanese government and suggested Americans evacuate a larger area.
But criticisms have emerged of media — particularly much of the non-Japanese media — coverage of the problems at the nuclear reactor, suggesting the reporting was often inaccurate or that the severity of the situation and potential dangers were exaggerated, and as a result drew attention away from the destruction and suffering caused by the earthquake and tsunami. The blog Japan Probe posted screen captures illustrating the different tone of coverage of the attempt to dump water from military helicopters onto Reactor 3 as part of the efforts to keep the fuel rods cool. The first, from the Huffington Post, implies more of a sense of panic and looming disaster than does the title to a BBC article using the same photo:
Scary, right? But then take a look at the color legend for the map:
The radiation levels indicated by different colors are reported in “arbitrary units.” So the different colors reflect differences in the potential level of radiation as it might hypothetically spread. But it’s based on a scale where the reader has no way to know whether the difference between purple, yellow, and red are actually meaningful and whether everything from 0.001 to 100 units, or a hundred billion gazillion units, all still count as “extremely low levels”of radiation, or if the red would indicate we’re all going to die.
I’m sure that the scientists who developed the model explained what the arbitrary unit was, but as provided in the NYT map, despite the text saying there is little to fear in terms of health, the map with the color coding seems likely to generate concern without providing much useful information.
UPDATE: Dmitriy T.M. just emailed me a link to a post about this topic at TechCrunch, which includes a clip from CNN in which Nancy Grace “schools” a meteorologist about how he’s totally wrong about radiation:
On the topic of concerns about radiation levels, my friend Kelly V. sent me a graphic put together by xkcd to put the level of radiation exposure from various sources into some context. The image is too large to fit in the space available here, but it’s worth clicking over to take a look. Here are two segments of it, but really, go look at the full image:
I’m certainly not in a position to adequately sort through the actual dangers posed by what’s going on at the Fukushima reactors, but it’s certainly worth questioning media coverage, especially insofar as that coverage drew attention away from the horrendous aftereffects of the earthquake and tsunami.
The shirts range from $98-110, and the website says “100% of all proceeds” will be donated to humanitarian efforts in Japan. The site does have a link to a United Way site that lets you make donations directly, without buying a shirt. However, looking over the information about the Japan Hope shirt, I have the same concerns I often do when I see humanitarianism-through-consumption efforts. Though we’re assured that “100% of all proceeds” will be donated, nowhere could I find out what that actually adds up to. Perhaps the donation from each shirt is sizable, but it may just as well be tiny. There’s no way to know what your actual contribution to Japanese relief efforts is. If you wanted to donate $50 and you buy this shirt, have you met your donation goal?
I honestly don’t really understand the point of these types of products. If you want to help out, why not just donate directly to a group involved in relief efforts? Why the need to get something for yourself in return? Maybe I’m underestimating the draw; perhaps such gimmicks actually bring in donations (of whatever size) from individuals who otherwise wouldn’t have contributed anything at all. (If any of our readers have any direct evidence one way or the other, I would love to hear about it.)
But I would feel more comfortable with this type of consumption-based giving if the companies engaged in it clearly provided a baseline idea of what the “proceeds” would be so consumers could have some sense of the size of their contribution. Without such information, I can’t help but wonder how many people greatly overestimate the positive effects of their purchase.
For more on potential problems with buying-as-activism, see my earlier post on the ethical fix.