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Flood's Toll Due to Years of Negligence, Race and Poverty

September 8, 2005 By:
Leonard Fein
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"All the wellsprings of the great deep burst and the casements of the heavens were opened" (Genesis: 7:11).

But in New Orleans, the order was reversed: First, it was the casements of the heavens that were opened, and only then did the wellsprings of the great deep burst.

"A flood of biblical proportions," many people called the surging waters of Lake Ponchartrain. Yet the truth - even the poetic truth - remains quite different.

This was very much a flood of characteristic American proportions, and of American habits. Which is to say that the destruction wrought by the flood was about negligence over many years, as it was also about race and poverty.

These are not the whole of the story, but they are its inescapable and most miserable aspects.

New Orleans is, to many people's surprise, America's largest port. It was/is high on the list of prospective terrorist targets.

One might have supposed that substantial supplies would have been prepositioned nearby, to be used in case of a horrific attack.

Well, there was a horrific attack - the product of nature's whims rather than human malice - and though there had been warning enough to encourage the evacuation of the city, there was evidently no plan for removing the sick, the elderly and all those who had no means of leaving.

And there was also no milk and no insulin. There was no plan.

Thus, in the aftermath of the flooding came chaos.

And looting.

Some 70 percent of the people of New Orleans are black.

It wasn't always that way - not long ago, the proportions were reversed, and some 70 percent were white. But many whites have left the city, perhaps in search of higher ground.

The city's black population, as we now all know from the television reports, are - most of them - poor, very poor.

And until the flood, they were also largely invisible. Now, they disturb our waking hours.

Who are these people, these huddled masses yearning to be - to be what? Fed? Housed? Or simply noticed.

We will never know how different it would have been had a neighborhood of middle-class whites been the principal victims of the flood.

But of one thing we can be certain: These poor people may have lost everything, but they have not lost their invisibility.

Just wait a week, or a month or two, and they will be gone, out of sight and out of mind.

This nation is not prepared to deal with issues of poverty - much less the intersection of poverty and race.

How might the nation be roused?

I am here reminded of the wisdom of Rabbi Mordecai Yitzhak Levi, an 18th-century Chasidic rabbi, commenting on the biblical command that we "blot out the name of Amalek from under the heavens."

That curse - which led the tradition to identify Haman as a descendant of the Amalekite king and which gave the name "Amalek" to all the enemies of the Jews through the centuries - concludes with the words, "Do not forget!"

What is it we are commanded to remember, asks Rabbi Levi?

The reason for the curse - so the passage in Deuteronomy 25:18 tells us - is that when we were in the desert, "weary and faint," Amalek attacked and slaughtered "all the stragglers" who lagged behind.

So, says Rabbi Levi, we are to learn and remember that if we allow the weak, the infirm and the beaten down to fall behind the rest of us, Amalek will be able to destroy them. What we are to remember, he teaches, is to bring our brothers and sisters who need special attention into our midst.

No one should be left outside the tent.

But today, we do not see the weary and the faint; we see the looters, we see aliens, people we do not know, have never spoken with, have hardly ever seen except as they have cleaned our hotel rooms or our restaurant tables, people of whom we are, let us confess it, afraid.

Might this terrible and terrifying flood render its victims enduringly visible? Might it be a transformative event?

The misery of it all, the sorrow, the dead by water and the dead by neglect - can we open our hearts to them? And our eyes and our minds as well?

The generosity across the nation is quite wonderful, but we have been here before and our leadership is feeble and our memories are short.

Do not forget!

Leonard Fein is a Boston-based columnist.

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