A Commentary On Two Tragedies
The inferno in Southern California rages on unchecked, but already comparisons are being made to the last major natural disaster in the
U.S.– Hurricane Katrina, which walloped New Orleansand the in 2005, taking over 1,800 lives and destroying $81 billion worth of real estate. Gulf Coast
Because of the very nature of the SoCal disaster – several wildfires over a fairly wide area, the death toll stands at a mere handful, several of them elderly people who died in falls, although over 800,000 people have been evacuated and over 1,100 homes have been destroyed as of Wednesday morning. The damage certainly will run into the billions of dollars.But there is another big difference between the twin tragedies – poor people.
This is not to say that there aren't plenty of poor people in the seven-county Los Angeles-San Diego area affected by the fires, and the middle-class housing market collapse there in recent months has been enormous. Nor can the loss experienced by a family from Malibu Canyon who saw their $5 million home and various Mercedes and Lexi incinerated be considered less awful than the loss experienced by an unwed mother with three children burned out of her public housing unit in north San Diego or an elderly retiree who had to leave behind all of his worldy possessions when he was evacuated from a nursing home clutching only his medications.
Devastation is devastation, and the fires certainly are not discriminating along socio-economic lines.
As it is 20,000 or so people are hunkered down in San Diego's Qualcom Stadium not because they are availing themselves of free massages, bean sprout sandwiches or the children's shows put on by a golden-hearted ventriloquist of my acquaintance, but because they have nowhere else to go.
Media reports portray a party-like atmosphere at Qualcom compared to the abominable conditions at the New Orleans Superdome during and after Katrina, which may be true, but give it a few days and we'll see how many people are smiling.
Let's also give it a few days to answer this looming question: The wretched federal and state response to Katrina was all the more awful because so many of the victims were poor and black. There is no question that these victims were marginalized during and after the disaster because of who they were.
It is hard to imagine a similar response in Southern California, and there is no way that most fire victims will be living in FEMA trailers two years from now as is the case with hurricane victims in Louisiana. But we'll be watching, as well as awaiting the inevitable stories as to whether the response to the fires has been hampered because of California National Guard equipment and personnel diverted to Iraq.
Yup, the full-blown politicization of this disaster is only a news cycle or two away, with right-wing sickos like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck already blaming it on America-hating pâté eaters and tree huggers. (Links intentionally not provided.)
A light rain is falling outside my window as I write this some 3,200 miles away from the inferno. The sound would usually be soothing, but not today. We don't need the rain. The people of Southern California do. Desperately. All I can offer is prayers.
Please pray for them as well.
Photographs by The Los Angeles Times