In 2008 I flew to New Orleans with a small group of business people from Long Island. It was nearly three years since Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf of Mexico and cut a swath of damage through Louisiana and the American psyche. It was arguably our worst hour. To be sure it was George Bush’s.
I had known most of the men on the trip for the better part of a decade and this was an annual getaway; we traveled well together and were generally quite relaxed. Yet it took only a handful of minutes between the airport and our destination to set the tone for the trip. It was immediately apparent that although three years had gone by, little had changed in New Orleans. The water marks stained the exterior of abandoned buildings, debris lined the road and houses were left in heaps of rubble. Later we would tour the hardest hit areas and it seemed as though the water had only receded days, not years, earlier. This was America?
Against the backdrop of a still devastated New Orleans, our driver revealed his haunting personal account of the days following Katrina.
He told us how he had shipped his family north and stayed behind to look after several rental properties he owned. He spoke of the relief he felt when the storm finally ended and the sudden horror of the flood unleashed by the levees. An inch of water silently gathered at his feet in an instant. Then the sound of doors slamming shut in the distance—steadily gaining momentum and growing louder and coming faster, closer. Bam. Bam. BAM. Closer, louder. Then just water. And bodies. Bodies everywhere.
He had our complete attention.
He and others from the neighborhood sought refuge on high ground and began collecting other bewildered survivors. After a day there were dozens of them, including several children, in a makeshift camp. One day passed as they waited for help. As another day came and went with no visible signs of relief, our driver and a couple of men from the group split off in search of food and water. He told us how after only a couple of miles he was able to break into a supermarket and gather supplies. As he walked out he finally came in contact with rescue personnel who greeted him at gunpoint and demanded he drop the supplies.
Hungry and beleaguered, our driver walked up to a man who remained poised with his rifle pointed at his head and asked him, with supplies still in hand, why they were pointing their guns at him and shouting. Incredulously, the man said that he was “looting”. At this point our driver began walking away toward the group that awaited him. He asked only one thing from the man with the gun. Motioning in the direction of the makeshift camp he asked the man that should he be compelled to pull the trigger, would he see to it that the supplies in his arms reach the hungry, homeless, forgotten people he was walking toward. The bullet obviously never came.
His was one of thousands of stories from Katrina. There are now hundreds of thousands more like it in Haiti. As the world struggles to deal with the outright devastation in Haiti there is a familiar and disturbing chord being struck in every report. Whenever a Haitian emerges from a store with supplies it is referred to as “looting.” It is not. Looting is when people break store windows during a riot and steal televisions. Looting is what the Iraqis did when they pillaged the National Museum in Baghdad while the U.S. military guarded the Ministry of Oil next door. When violence spilled into the streets of Los Angeles during the Watts Riots and the 1992 Rodney King riots, looting and destruction arose out of man-made frustration and chaos, not natural disaster and devastation.
The debate over the media’s definition of looting has raged since Katrina when Kanye West stung the media by saying “If you see a black family, it says they’re looting. See a white family, it says they’re looking for food.” He was right then and he’s right today.
Taking toothpaste from an abandoned pharmacy to block your nostrils from the smell of rotting corpses isn’t looting. Taking food and water from the rubble of a fallen grocery store to give to your dying child isn’t looting. It wasn’t in New Orleans and it isn’t in Haiti. Nor is the earthquake itself a “blessing in disguise” that resulted from a “pact with the devil” as Pat Robertson believes. Now, whoever it was that removed Robertson’s soul… that was looting.