Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Hurricane Katrina, Race, Class, Tragedy, and Charity

Anne Finger
Society for Disability Studies Board of Directors (2004-2007)
Email address: anniedigit@mindspring.com.

Editors' Note: In the wake of the unfolding news that surrounds Hurricane Katrina, subscribers to the Society for Disability Studies (SDS) listserv have been actively discussing the particular impact that Hurricane Katrina has had on people with disabilities and those with other characteristics that too often intersect at a common point of societal marginalization and neglect. The editors of DSQ invited this timely commentary, which has been expanded from its original submission to the SDS listerv.

Dear Listserv Members:

First off, I've welcomed the discussion that we've had about issues of race on the listserv of late, and I don't think that the discussion of Hurricane Katrina should be seen as a diversion from these issues--in fact, I think this "natural" disaster provides a stark and telling illustration of how the intersections of issues of race and disability play out in a concrete way in people's lives.

Throughout the first week after the hurricane, I was struck by the presence of disability. In the New York Times, I read of a woman in the Superdome grabbing a reporter's arm, pleading for water for her daughter, a wheelchair user-- "I'm afraid she's going to have a seizure," the mother cried. On National Public Radio, I heard the voice of a man calling out, "Dilantin! I need Dilantin!" The president of Jefferson Parish broke down as he told of a man who'd been reassuring his mother, institutionalized in a nursing home, that help was on the way, only to learn that she had drowned--on Friday, five days after the storm. And, of course, there is that image of the woman in the wheelchair, dead outside the Convention Center. Now, I am reading of the discovery of the dead in nursing homes and hospitals, and of some hospital staff saying they deliberately killed patients who were on the brink of death.

I've been enraged on so many different levels these past weeks--at the way that disabled people seem to have been forgotten by those who ordered the evacuation of the city and the rescuers, at the appalling conditions everyone--disabled and nondisabled--who sought shelter in the Superdome and the Convention Center endured. I was heartened when I read of Jesse Jackson and other African American ministers and Kanye West, who stated the obvious racial dimension to this disaster. That this disaster has had an especially horrific impact on disabled African Americans is clear.

I do think we need to rethink our use of the word "tragedy" when applied to this. While these events were undeniably tragic, they were hardly inevitable. For a start, let's think about why the levees broke in the first place. Our nation as a whole may have problems with its infrastructure, but these problems are particularly acute in poor communities. Anyone who has ever wheeled or walked along the sidewalk in an upper middle class neighborhood and also wheeled or walked along one in a poor neighborhood knows this difference in their bones. Infrastructure--from sidewalks to curb cuts to levees--is under-funded in poor communities. That a hurricane would hit New Orleans was inevitable. That the levees, which had been neglected during both Republican and Democratic administrations, were not adequately maintained was also a known fact. On another level, nearly all climatologists predict that increasing sea temperatures, as a result of global warming, will increase the ferocity of hurricanes. In the September 19, 2005 New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert makes a compelling case that while the question of whether Katrina's destructive power was increased by global warming is scientifically unanswerable, "climbing CO2 levels will lead to an increase in the intensity of hurricanes, though not in hurricane frequency....Meanwhile, as sea levels rise–water expands as it warms–storm surges, like the one that breached the levees in New Orleans, will inevitably become more dangerous."

As disability studies scholars and activists, we need to formulate strategic responses to this crisis that go beyond donating money to aid those displaced and harmed by the storm. The impulse to reach out and offer help to those in need is a generous and good one. But as disabled people, many of us have experienced charity first-hand, and we understand that the charity model has many drawbacks. There are the worthy recipients of charity–the smiling, grateful cripples, and the unworthy--the angry, bitter cripples; the "looters;" and those who, as Barbara Bush put it, "were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." Above all, charity keeps in place the notion that the "problem" is located in the bodies of disabled people, in the individuals who have been displaced, rather than in social structures and economic policies. I would like to see us put our energies, our time, our money into demanding structural change.

I think we need to enter into the national dialogue, loudly and clearly, stating that these deaths of persons with disabilities were not inevitable tragedies, but were the result of government policies that ignore our needs. We need to say that this neglect does not hit all disabled people equally, but was especially lethal for the poor, predominantly African-American, residents of New Orleans and surrounding communities. We should also demand that, as the dead are counted, the powers-that-be also collect statistics on how many disabled people are among the dead. How many were found in nursing homes? How many were found in community care facilities? The answers to those questions will shock the conscience of our nation. We need to reach out to those disabled people who survived, and do all we can to enable their voices to be heard.

In general, I'm not a big fan of working within the legislative process, but I think this is a time when it makes sense to contact your senators and representatives and get them to ask some hard questions in the hearings that will be happening in the upcoming weeks. What were the plans for evacuating institutions--nursing homes, community care facilities? What were the plans for communicating with people who are Deaf and hearing impaired? How was lifesaving medication going to be delivered to people who had been forced to flee? In short, what thought was given to the lives and needs of disabled people? We should be writing letters to editors, calling reporters, demanding that an independent commission to investigate the response to the hurricane be held; we should be talking in our classes and to everyone we can about the impact of Katrina on disabled people, and especially on those in our community who have the fewest resources.