(HOST) The third world quality of images documenting Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans didn’t really surprise commentator Madeleine Kunin. It reminded her of a visit she made there a few years ago and reinforced impressions of a side of the city rarely seen by Mardi Gras visitors.
(KUNIN) The most shocking poverty I saw when I visited schools around the United States, when I was Deputy Secretary of Education about ten years ago, was in New Orleans.On my way to a high school, I passed a housing project ironically called Desire, named after the street car of Tennessee Williams fame.
No one who partied on Bourbon Street took that street car into this neighborhood, which looked like a bombed out quarter of Baghdad, unfit for human habitation.
Yet there were women and children sitting on broken stoops, surrounded by trash.
The nearby high school was not much better. Bullet holes pocked the walls; shingles were falling off the roof.
I asked the dispirited principal if they had any computers. The answer was no: they could hardly afford to buy books.I could not believe that such conditions existed in the United States of America.
Just as America’s television audience could not believe that such conditions existed for the poorest of our citizens – until they saw them wading waist high looking for higher ground.
The Astrodome was not a pretty sight. Families huddled together in dreadful conditions – without food or water – besieged by violence, shootings, and rapes.
Children missing parents, parents searching for children; and outside, in the flooded streets, bodies floating, unrecognized, unclaimed.
Hurricane Katrina brought the poor out from behind their hidden neighborhoods into the open, where we could no longer pretend they didn’t exist.
Most Americans, if they have to drive through bad neighborhoods, roll their windows up, make sure the doors are locked, and stare straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with anyone who might make them nervous.
Katrina not only destroyed houses and uprooted lives; it destroyed the illusion that when the rich get richer, a high tide lifts all boats, including those of the poor.
This high tide revealed that the poor, in fact, have no boats.
It gave a human face to the stark statistic that tells us that, while upper income Americans are doing better than ever with tax cuts and business profits, low income Americans are getting poorer.
Katrina, by breaking down the barriers that segregate the poor from our view, made us face the bitter and sad truth: that the poor live amongst us and that if we are to save their lives we must not only rescue them from drowning, we must also rescue them from lives of desperation.
This is Madeleine May Kunin.
Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.