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Katrina exposed America's seamy side

By T V R Shenoy
September 08, 2005 18:38 IST
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Recent research by Richard Nisbett and his colleagues at the University of Michigan suggests that Asians and Americans quite literally look at the world differently. Broadly speaking, Americans tend to focus on a single image where Asians take in the bigger picture.

Is that because Asians are taught to think in terms of larger groups -- family certainly, perhaps society at large -- where Americans are trained to idolise individualism, or do we think as we do because of our genes make us see things that way?

Mumbai to Katrina: Man to blame?

The question intrigues me given the vastly different ways in which the people of Asia and those of the United States reacted in the face of immense calamity. The tsunami that struck nations on the Indian Ocean rim caused thousands of deaths but it also served in some strange way to draw people together.

The looting, arson, rape, and murder that television cameras caught in graphic detail in the devastated city of New Orleans was another story altogether. Look at Sri Lanka for instance, where the tsunami led to a (sadly brief) armistice between the Tamil Tigers and the Government of Sri Lanka so that aid could be rushed in.

Nor was there any of this criminal behaviour visible when Mumbai endured the heaviest rains in over a century.

By the way, many people commented on the manner in which Mumbai's pretensions to being a second Shanghai had been wrecked by the response to the 'tsunami from the sky.' The aftermath to Hurricane Katrina demonstrates just how helpless even the world's richest and most powerful nation can be.

Some would argue that New Orleans is not as important to the United States as Mumbai is to India. If so, consider this: a fifth of America's trade is conducted through that port, and about a quarter of its petroleum products flows through Louisiana's pipelines.

The inadequacy of the American response does not excuse the lethargy of the Maharashtra chief minister and his colleagues, but it offers some perspective. And speaking as a human being, I hope we never have to see how Shanghai would cope with any such act of God.

(By the way, following the tsunami, some Christian fundamentalists spouted some rubbish about how it was actually God's way of punishing Asia for 'persecuting' Christians. I wonder what they are saying now that it is the turn of the United States to suffer?)

Water's wrath

However, it is not governmental reactions which surprised me -- I have long since lost most illusions about the efficiency of state-run machinery -- as it was individual reactions. Mawardi Nurdin, the mayor of Banda Aceh in tsunami-struck Indonesia, admits that he himself indulged in a bit of criminal activity immediately after the tragedy; he broke into grocery stores to get food and milk for hungry survivors.

Technically, that was a crime but I don't think any jury on this planet would convict him.

But in New Orleans the looting went far beyond the essentials of life, people were stealing guns, DVD players, and jewellery. (Even some police officers apparently joined in.) They were raping children and then killing them. They were using their stolen weapons to shoot at US Army helicopters that had come to rescue them.

That is unpardonable no matter what the circumstances. It was a case of individualism carried to the nth degree -- 'Only I matter, and society be damned!'

We can of course carry the condemnation too far. There were no such reports of mass criminal activity after the Northridge quake in San Francisco in 1994. New York responded bravely to the events of September 11. (Though I understand there was some looting in 'secured areas' -- those areas which had been cordoned off to civilians while the police, paramedics, and firemen carried on rescue operations. There was also a small fight between the police and fire department workers when the former stopped the latter from entering the World Trade Center premises for fear of pilferage.)

Certainly, stray incidents do not add up to the total chaos that prevailed in New Orleans.

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Thousands died in Tamil Nadu because of the tsunami but nobody thought it necessary to put Nagapattinam and other areas under martial law. Nor did a third of the Tamil Nadu police walk away from the job because officers couldn't handle the strain.

There were other seamy sides of America that Katrina exposed to the world. Racism was one. Roughly two-third of the population of New Orleans is African-American. The suspicion arose that the ethnic profile was one reason why the federal government did not rush in with aid as it had done for San Francisco and New York.

A second fault that lay bare was the utter poverty that blights sections of the United States. Asked why they hadn't fled to more secure areas in the face of hurricane warnings, several responded that they lacked both the personal transport to take them away and the money to pay while they lodged elsewhere. So they just stuck around and hoped for the best.

Not so very different from poor fishermen on Chennai beach is it?

Speaking as an Asian, I think we Asians handled the tsunami better than the Americans reacted to the hurricane. However, relief measures are only half the story. Rehabilitation and repair are the other half. Mawardi Nurdin has complained about the pace of rebuilding houses even eight months after the tsunami. Will the United States do better?

That is a question to be answered only in the future. But let me conclude with one devout hope. I never want to be caught in a catastrophe like the tsunami or a hurricane, but if I am, then, please God, let it be in Asia and not in an American city!

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T V R Shenoy