Images on TV channels, the web and daily papers, were stark: thousands-strong mobs chaotically scattered on the roadside, gigantic piles of trash, corpses sprawled in filthy waters right beside the squatting people, emaciated crying children unable to chase flies from their faces... Indifferent, weary soldiers - pushing, yelling, pointing guns at the desperate crowds. We've seen it all - on BBC, CNN - from various hotspots in the world's poorest places - usually in refugee camps somewhere in Africa or South Asia. But it wasn't a ghoulish refugee camp in Sudan or Sierra Leone. It was a ghastly gathering place for survivors in a big, important and - until recently - a vibrant American city, visited by millions of tourists each year.
It didn't happen in the middle of the jungles, or in a far-flung mountainous area, so that rescue operations needed to overcome rough terrain, absence of available food or inclement weather. This was in the center of America, on a junction of the busy Gulf coast and the country's biggest river, with passable roads leading to other large cities.
"It sank" - the unfortunate phrase was made (in)famous five years ago, when Vladimir Putin uttered it with a goofy smirk in his interview on the Larry King show in the aftermath of the loss of the Kursk submarine. Putin had yet to learn some basics of public relations and it didn't look good on TV. In August of 2000 Russia was less than pleased with Putin's performance during the Kursk tragedy - swimming in the Black Sea, while the nuclear submarine found itself disabled and lifeless on the bottom of the Barents Sea after a mysterious explosion. Yet the main charge that Putin's opponents threw at him - that he and the Navy commanders were late in calling foreign help - was pointless demagoguery: it eventually took five days for foreign assistance to reach the Kursk, while all aboard were dead within 10 hours of the initial blast.
But in New Orleans, the failure was hundreds of times worse. Equally idiotic and shallow was the reaction of the American political class. Most of them immediately started throwing blame at the opposite faction - a despicable shit-fight between monkeys in a zoo. Democrats blamed Bush, with his dim-witted FEMA director Michael Brown, whose only qualification for the job was being a roommate of the Republican functionary and a lobbyist who led FEMA earlier. Republicans dumped everything on local Democratic authorities - the New Orleans mayor and Louisiana governor, who proved just as inept. In fact the monstrous incompetence and stupidity was shown at all levels, a truly systemic breakdown.
It started long before Katrina struck. With all the information known after the flood, one can only gasp at how this precarious situation was allowed to rot and rust for such a long time. Some petty Middle Eastern dictatorship would have done it more responsibly. The city, much of it below sea level, was shielded from surrounding water by a single (!!!) perimeter of flimsy earthen and concrete levees. The houses and streets began 20 feet from the levees in some places. No internal sections were separated by barriers, so a single breach was enough to flood the whole city. This is stunning sloppiness: for example, in Holland - where half the country is below sea level - they built a huge multi-level system of dams, sluices and retractable barriers. Compared to flood protection in Holland, the New Orleans levee system looked like a beaver's pile next to the Hoover dam. After Katrina struck, the levees failed in a most trivial way: the flood waters poured over the top of the levees, washed away their earthen foundations, and concrete barriers were simply knocked over, letting the water in.
On Monday, August 29th, the hurricane passed a hundred miles away from the city, the worst seemed to be over and I thought the whole thing would be forgotten in a week.
Then the true nightmare started, as news gradually trickled in. The city began to flood. Eventually, water covered 80% of the city. No help, or any authorities, were in sight. Chaos, looting and gunfire filled the streets. Some helicopters flew over the suburbs, picking up occasional people stranded on the rooftops, while nearly a hundred thousand waited for promised food and buses that never came. Those who tried to cross the bridge over the Mississippi to the neighborhood of Algiers (which was mostly dry) were turned away by the National Guard. As the terrible news seeped from the ghostly city, nothing changed for days. By Friday night TV viewers all over the country were treated with the sight of sobbing - no, bawling - Anderson Coopers of CNN and Geraldo Rivera of the Fox News, who couldn't realize how it was possible: tens of thousand of hungry people, terrorized by bandits, hundreds dying like flies, with police and military simply driving around, occasionally throwing some packages of food into the crowd.
On his blog, a journalist from leftist paper Zavtra posted a telephone conversation with a Russian student, a friend of his, who was stuck in New Orleans for five days after the storm. It was surreal.
After the flood, all signs of normal life evaporated. There were incessant sounds of gunfire everywhere. The battles were between different gangs for the choicest looting ground - streets with the best shops or big department stores, or the richest apartments and family houses. Most of the police simply ran away. This Russian student saw cops pack their families into police cars and drive away, with lights flashing and sirens laring, ahead of the rest of the populace. Those who stayed often barricaded themselves in their precincts. They didn't have enough weapons, enough gas for patrol cars, even batteries.
Every night looters came near his house. Fortunately, it wasn't the richest neighborhood, and bandits weren't too insistent. They could usually be chased away with guns before entering the house. If not - the inhabitants hid inside and let them loot, otherwise bandits would shoot randomly in every direction. The student was also stuck by the infantilism of some of his American neighbors: they were unable to even boil some water for drinking. Eventually he realized that no help was coming at all. He found some old inflatable kiddy pool in the attic, and rowed away with a few belongings, and was picked up by a boat patrol that at first tried to arrest him for looting.
There was one more bizarre thing during the New Orleans tragedy: the incredible length to which the Russian "democrats" were willing to go to justify this gigantic failure. It was a sorry sight. The delusional, fat-assed empire shat all over itself, becoming the laughingstock of the whole world. Lo and behold - crowds of Russian "liberal journalists" and "democratic reformers" tripped over one another to lick and swallow this shit, rather than allowing their myths about Great America to be sullied. Some of it was truly odious: for example the well-known journalist Yulia Latynina, a columnist for the Moscow Times, ranted on her radio show that all who stayed in New Orleans and died there were just druggies and criminals - otherwise they would surely get away; of course the Bush administration wasn't to blame. It was utterly disgusting - no semi-respectable American media outlet would publish such hateful drivel, and of course no American media quoted her words. Why this sudden reticence - they always liked to publish or quote her when she said pretty much the same awful things about Russians.
Yet for most Russians the American prestige after New Orleans sunk to a level never seen before. And that's probably not too bad a thing - after all it is better to live by one's own wisdom, rather than by faded myths about some far-away paradise.