Without dismissing the suffering of other victims of Hurricane Katrina, nor comparing one to another, it may be the elderly and infirm who have been disproportionately affected and in need of ongoing special attention.
Although Louisiana nursing homes are required by law to have a detailed evacuation plans and signed contracts with private transportation companies, 70 percent of them were not evacuated. Thirty-two people died in one flooded home in Chalmette, Louisiana, when the staff ran off abandoning the residents in their beds.
In Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, people in their 70s, 80s and 90s were dumped and left alone on the auditorium floor of a local high school without food, water or their medications.
And in Metairie, Louisiana, a man tried to get his blind, 78-year old father and crippled, 75-year old mother on a bus, reports the Associated Press:
“’I couldn’t get them on because the young people, the healthy people were pushing and fighting to get on the bus…’ said the man, Bruce Barnes of New Orleans.
“That happened time and again as buses appeared, filled up, and left. Even when a bus was set aside for the elderly and disabled, the workers wouldn’t let both Barnes and his 62-year old aunt accompany the parents. Rather than leave the elderly couple alone on the bus or the aunt behind, all four waited some more.
“Finally a doctor got them onto a helicopter to the airport where they boarded a plane for Austin, Texas.”
- - Wired News, 7 September 2005
There are other stories of elderly left to suffer and die on their own in their homes, on roofs and in hospitals where doctors and nurses had not the means to care for them.
Not to slight the children, but kids are resilient and they can physically bounce back quickly. Not so with old people who, without food and water, in filthy stadiums and lacking their medications, will struggle to regain their health and equilibrium, if they ever can.
Yes, I know, old people are not as cute as the young and video of them is not as immediately poignant. Further, they are more often disoriented and appear to the rest of us to be crazy – a condition television news is loathe to broadcast. That does not make our responsibility for them any less important than the children.
Older people may also have a harder time than the young adjusting to be uprooted from their friends and neighbors. But:
“Older evacuees do have one thing in their favor, experts say. A lifetime of living may have made them tougher.
“’I was in (Hurricane) Betsy, I was in Camille, I was in all of it. And I’m still here now,’ Josephine Bigham, 68, said on a bus…’
“Dr. Carmel Bitondo Dyer, a geriatric physician and associate professor of medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, has heard plenty of comments like that while working at the Astrodome…
“Of course, she added, ‘the people who made it here are tough, and they’re the survivors…I suspect the dead bodies the evacuees are describing, many of them, we’ll find out were frail elderly who couldn’t sit in the sun for 48 hours.’”
- - Wired News, 7 September 2005
To quote George Lakoff, “The central role of government is to use the common wealth for the common good to better all our lives.” If our government’s unwarranted grab for Iraq and its massive transfer to wealth to the already obscenely rich did not do it, Hurricane Katrina has exposed the imperial presidency in all its naked greed.
But unless the president together with every elected representative in Congress immediately scale back the war in Iraq, rescind the tax cuts to the rich, withdraw from consideration repeal of the estate tax and reject the privatization of Social Security, we will know that no matter how many trips the president makes to the Gulf coast, no matter how he tries to spin this, government business as usual will continue and the next disaster will leave the same people – the poor, the children and elderly - to bear the brunt again.