America's underclass exposed

Pockets of poverty in the US are relatively small - but New Orleans shows history's repeated negligence.

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Live, in color, and beamed into our homes 24 hours a day, Americans have been dying. The ill, untended and desperate; the young mothers, staggering out of the Convention Center, clinging to hollow-eyed babies; the elderly, trapped in attics, calling for help that won't be coming; and the corpses, floating in fetid water.

If the storm was a Category 4 when it made landfall, the images left in its wake are Category 5 or more. They have the power to topple not buildings but myths, so deeply rooted in the American landscape that they've begun to seem permanent.

Katrina has reminded us that we have neighbors, most often people of color, living in poverty. They are part of the underclass, always in harm's way and far more likely to suffer during disasters that we somehow still insist on mislabeling "natural."

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The chorus of outraged questions we're hearing are pointed and persistent: How can this be happening in the United States?

Are we so close, suddenly, to tsunami-stricken Banda Aceh, despite the geographic and socioeconomic gulf separating us from such a distant place?

The images we're confronting might lead us to blurt out an embarrassed "yes."

But the answer actually is more complicated. We have relatively small pockets of poverty in our cities and scattered across the countryside - small, at least when compared with the developing world. But these pockets are big enough: slightly more than 12 percent of our population overall; a bit higher than that in the South, our poorest region; close to 25 percent among African-Americans; still higher, 34 percent, for New Orleans, our ninth poorest and one of our most African-American cities (approximately 70 percent).

In the wake of Katrina we've been forced to grapple with the poverty in our backyard. Perhaps this is because the nettlesome images come from a submerged New Orleans, a city with such an enduring grip on the American imagination. Or maybe we are so shaken because so many of the faces we see suffering belong to African-Americans, highlighting, yet again, our greatest unresolved dilemma: the problem of race.

Regardless, Katrina has dredged up ugly truths about poverty, which, though it does indeed hit African-Americans hardest, cuts through all strata of our society. As a result, people are demanding change. Or at least they're dusting off discussions last held in earnest when Lyndon Johnson spoke of a Great Society, before scuttling this vision in Vietnam.

Both recent and distant history suggest, sadly, we'll soon move on.

Americans forget disaster because they forget its victims, who are hidden in plain sight. They are the people who turn down sheets at New Orleans' hotels, who bus dirty dishes at the city's restaurants, who clean up discarded beads after Mardi Gras. They are invisible, their labor crucial but camouflaged in our service economy.

Or they're unemployed. In the Ninth Ward, New Orleans' hardest hit district, more than 3 in 10 people lack jobs, and more than half the households live on less than $20,000 annually. On this low-lying land, settled early last century after New Orleans began reclaiming the cypress swamp that sat on its margins, African-Americans and poor whites built their homes, rows and rows of shotgun houses, so typical of New Orleans' vernacular architecture. Most whites left long ago. And now, because of Katrina, many of the homes are gone, too. The structures will probably soon be forgotten as a wave of well-intentioned urban renewal rolls through or wetlands are allowed to seep back in, to mitigate, as they once did, flooding.

New Orleans, in fairness, can exist only because of this disaster amnesia, a willful forgetting that makes it possible to ignore the next catastrophe lurking around the corner. Just a few entries from a ledger of the city's forgotten calamities: fires twice razed New Orleans at the end of the colonial period: a massive flood nearly washed it away in 1849, ushering in an era of federally subsidized levee building; the great inundation of 1927 prompted New Orleans to blow out a levee downstream, flooding two rural parishes in order to relieve pressure on the urban floodwall. Hurricanes, too, have been frequent visitors, so common that claims about how unexpected this debacle has been now sound hollow.

But, in terms of loss of life, disease was a much bigger historical force. Throughout most of the 19th century, epidemics that each killed at least 100 people - today this would constitute a public health emergency - struck the city approximately every three years. The biggest, yellow fever in 1853, killed nearly 10,000 people out of a population of 120,000.

The death toll was high for two reasons. First, because a month into the epidemic, with more than 100 people dying daily, city leaders still denied that an outbreak existed. The official silence was supposed to maintain calm and keep trade flowing, with the unintended consequence of worsening the epidemic, particularly among people with limited access to information and no way out of town. In 1853, nearly half the city's population fled. So here's reason two: Then as now, the poor were left behind to die. By August 1853, the city was deserted, the silence interrupted only by long funeral processions. Cemeteries overflowed, and when a flood arrived, coffins floated through the empty streets. Only with autumn's cool weather did the pace of death finally slow.

Perhaps the most shocking feature of this epidemic was that as quickly as yellow fever decimated New Orleans, it was forgotten - by design. This feat was possible because of who was killed: the poorest of the city's residents. Just six months later, New Orleans was engaged in one of its busiest commercial seasons ever, and few people worried over the city's future. It was as though the outbreak had never occurred.

Even today, you have to know where to look to find icons of the city's disaster history: gravestones in New Orleans' above-ground cemeteries, the macabre cities of the dead; anonymous stations housing pumps that usually keep the city dry; grass-covered levees that might be mistaken for hills. New Orleans has hidden its catastrophes, realizing that such tragedies are not part of a usable past that can be marketed in its new tourist economy.

Will this happen again? Will Katrina be forgotten? It seems unlikely now, so stricken are we by images from New Orleans. Once we begin counting the bodies from front-row seats it may become even more difficult to imagine New Orleans as anything but a wet graveyard.

Still, it already seems possible that our memories will dim, because the worst victims of Katrina are, again, part of the underclass - in sum, those people who won't be writing the city's history or tourist brochures any time soon. Even if the survivors can't or choose not to forget, those in power, in their zeal to return to business as usual, will struggle to ensure that the rest of us do.

Having said that, let us try to remember some things about Katrina. We shouldn't forget the people who were trapped and died inside the city just as the victims of the epidemic of 1853 have been forgotten.

We should remember, because if we can fight against something so ephemeral as terror, perhaps we can start another war on poverty or racism.

If we do, we will be better prepared next time there is an epidemic or killer storm. The damage might be limited then, the suffering contained. If collective forgetting has allowed New Orleans to rebuild in the past, collective memory will make it and other cities safer and better places to live in the future. And then, perhaps, we can hope that the images now haunting us might fade with time.

Ari Kelman teaches history at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of 'A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans.'

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