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Posted September 18, 2005

Taken from the National Catholic Reporter

Reactions to Hurrican Katrina; The Romans, the Orthodox and primacy;
The pope and Turkey; Testimony of a cab driver;
40th anniversary of Dei Verbum; Oscar Romero's cause

By John L. Allen, Jr.

Americans who lived overseas at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York remember vividly the massive wave of sympathy for the United States that followed those events. The most common headline in European papers the next morning, including Corriere della Sera, the flagship paper in Italy, was, "We are all Americans now."

International reaction to Hurricane Katrina, at least from this vantage point, somehow feels different.

In the early hours after the storm there was similar concern, especially since Katrina triggered memories of the recent Asian tsunami. As events unfolded, however, many observers were quickly dumbfounded by how ill-prepared American authorities seemed to be; this is not how the richest and most powerful country in the world is supposed to function.

Then, as images of chaos played out on television screens, the inescapable fact that many of the hardest-hit victims are poor, minorities, and the elderly began to reinforce some of the worst stereotypes many overseas observers already harbor of America. Critics have long charged that the United States is a cut-throat culture with little sense of community, one in which the poor and minorities are largely left to fend for themselves. Here, it seemed, was dramatic proof of the point, as large pockets of already vulnerable people appeared to be literally abandoned.

Le Monde, the largest paper in France, said that the hurricane had "highlighted the country's social inequalities."

"Despite the economic and military strength it is prepared to deploy overseas, the United States has shown itself incapable of dealing with a catastrophe of this dimension at home," Le Monde said.

La Repubblica, a leading Italian daily, offered similar comments.

"The catastrophe placed before the eyes of the United States and the world the reality of extreme inequality, and extreme degradation," one of the paper's editorialists wrote. "It has also shown the extreme fragility of the leading country of the Western world, and of the values it wants to export and of which it pretends to be the main source, but which are absent in its own country a century and a half after the war of secession."

"America lives in every sense with Africa in its back yard," the editorialist wrote. "This situation doesn't seem to be a priority for America's ruling class; but this neglect is greatly worrying to America's real friends."

How fair those judgments are is, of course, a matter of legitimate debate, but they seemed to articulate fairly widely held perceptions.

Two Americans in Rome, one a Vatican official and the other a superior of a religious community, said they believe the response to Katrina has damaged America's reputation internationally.

Cardinal Francis Stafford, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court that deals with matters of conscience, told NCR Sept. 6 that the response during the early days of the crisis, which saw tens of thousands of people in New Orleans left without food, water or shelter, was "reprehensible."

"It is a shame on our country," he said.

Sr. Clare Pratt, superior general of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, told me that in her Rome community, with sisters from nine nationalities, there has been "overwhelming criticism" of the way officials responded to the crisis. Pratt said the racial dimension is a strong factor in discussions.

"You turn on the television, and you see busloads being packed up at the Hyatt, while poor blacks are left behind. Who makes these decisions, and why? It's hard to explain," Pratt said.

Pratt stressed, however, "these racial and class concerns don't outweigh people's tremendous sympathy for all concerned." Stafford likewise said that "one picks up" a strong sense internationally of repugnance at the fact that African-Americans, poor people, and the elderly were among the most devastated.

"In every paper I have read, and in my own conversations, I find a nearly unanimous sense that the government has failed to protect its own citizens, especially the most vulnerable," Stafford said.

Stafford told NCR that the failures were especially difficult to grasp in light of a 1998 study that predicted precisely this sort of crisis if the New Orleans levees were not reinforced. He also pointed out that other nations with major urban areas below sea level, such as Holland, manage to avoid these outcomes through regular reinforcement of defensive measures. To President George Bush's credit, Stafford said, he has acknowledged that the response was unacceptable.

Stafford linked the failures in the wake of the hurricane to a more general neglect of urban areas in the United States. "When I visit major cities in the United States, I've been struck by the deterioration that has taken place in urban neighborhoods," Stafford said.

"I'm not talking about high-profile areas such as Baltimore's Inner Harbor, but the neighborhoods adjacent to them," he said. "I began to see this in the early 1980s, but it has become progressively worse. The reality is that the overwhelming numbers of people who live in these areas are poor and minorities."

In that sense, Stafford said, the effects of Hurricane Katrina may illustrate in especially dramatic form a more general pattern of disregard.

At the same time, Stafford said, one should not forget that children and the elderly of all backgrounds were also among those most affected.

Pratt said people with whom she's spoken often link the hurricane in the States and its aftermath to two other issues: the war in Iraq and ecology.

"Roughly one-third of the National Guard of Louisiana and Alabama is on duty in Iraq, and some ask whether the money and personnel there could have been better used to protect vulnerable people in the United States," Pratt said. Pratt then pointed to the ecological dimension of the crisis.

"Some people are asking if this will be a wake-up call about climate change and so on," Pratt said. "It's not just a matter of global warming, but our handling of rivers and waterways and so on."

At the same time, she said, the crisis has also generated innumerable stories of generosity. As one example, she pointed to the way that Sacred Heart schools across the United States have mobilized to absorb students from the community's New Orleans school, taking them in at least until January, the earliest that the New Orleans school is expected to be operational.

Some readers of "The Word from Rome" will know American Fr. Christopher Nalty, an official of the Congregation for Clergy. His family lives in New Orleans, and, as it happens, Nalty arrived home just days before Hurricane Katrina to spend some time with his father, who is ill. Fortunately, the family evacuated before the storm to property they own in Brewton, Alabama. "We were some of the lucky ones with someplace to go," Nalty said.

Nalty has been keeping friends informed via e-mail; despite some controversy over the term, he does not hesitate to describe the people of New Orleans as "refugees," unable to return to their homes for long periods of time, and unsure what they'll find when they get there.

In the meantime, Nalty is working with the Willwoods Community, an affordable housing operation sponsored by the New Orleans archdiocese that owns 11 buildings and some 1,700 apartments for low-income people. Their first aim is to restore a property in one of the least affected areas so that it can temporarily house workers, who will then fan out and try to make the other structures habitable as quickly as possible.

"I'm not really good at asking for help, but here it is,"

Nalty writes in a Sept. 7 e-mail.

"Lots of people are donating to different relief efforts or the Red Cross, and that's great. I'm just asking for help for something with which I'm involved. I'm not asking help for something that would be a luxury, but what is a necessity: housing so that refugees can return home."

The Willwoods Web site is down due to power outages, but people wishing to help can visit the site of the New Orleans TV station, WLAE, which has a special button for Willwoods: www.pbs.org/wlae/