Rachel Expose sat paralyzed in front of the glare of continuous CNN headlines. August 29th had taken its toll on her. From the living room she could hear repeated dialing from her father’s fingers, but she knew he was getting nowhere. She watched from afar as her Cajun roots became submerged in the murky waters of Hurricane Katrina. All she could do was watch as her family struggled to survive.[rachel]
“I was terrified,” the interior design junior said. “I have family in New Orleans, Monticello and Jackson, Mississippi. When it hit, my dad was on the phone all night with his mother (who lives in Michigan). The next morning, I called him to see how my relatives were, and he didn’t have any information. You can’t imagine what that’s like. My whole family could have died, we just had no idea.”
Before the billions in damages were assessed, before the finger pointing and bureaucratic accusations, there was a city and its people. Before the state of emergency, military mobilization, fatality estimates and the stories of survival, there was a place that many called home. Before the winds of Katrina laid waste to the Gulf Coast, New Orleans stood as a cultural symbol of a nation. That was all before the city became marred with misfortune.
East Lansing, just like several communities around the nation, has been directly affected by the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. Many truly consider this to be a defining event that shows our nation’s humanity-whether good or bad. This has been reflected in the intelligent and wildly diverse student base at MSU. Despite differing political parties, social perspectives, and race and class viewpoints concerning the way the aftermath of Katrina was handled, MSU students and faculty agree that everyone should be doing something to, at the very least, help survivors.
Consequently, it was the polluted waters of Katrina that allowed many Americans to finally see our nation’s glaring poverty line and the racial separations. Those above the line had the resources needed to flee the area. But we also saw the people below that line who had to struggle and fight to survive. New Orleans is one of the most impoverished cities in the nation second only to Detroit, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and black Americans make up 67 percent of the entire city, and a vast majority of them live well below the poverty line.
However, to Expose, these people weren’t just ill-fated survivors in a newspaper headline—this was her family. The 20-year-old stood impatiently idle and regrettably anguished. “We were out of contact with my relatives for about two weeks. It was very scary watching the news and not being able to talk with them and see if they’re ok.”
The rest of the country watched attentively for days as survivors of the storm, marooned on roofs and in attics, perished while waiting for rescue. The nation saw the strain of those stranded in the Superdome as food, water and sanity became scarce. Eventually, people grew tired of watching and growing outrage began to spread.
Nationwide criticism and accusations began to mount against both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Bush administration, stating that the slow response time of the federal government was due to the race and class bracket of ‘Katrina refugees.’
Numerous students here at MSU we’re appalled by the Bush administration’s handling of the situation. “I don’t understand how they all blame each other when the blame should always go to the top,” proclaimed Kashif Saleem, an accounting junior. “It’s obvious that race had a lot to do with it.”
Kashif’s perspective was shared by Rohit Burde, a junior at MSU who watched the news in disbelief. “This is unacceptable. I think President Bush’s higher priority is international relations than the welfare of his own citizens,” stated the human biology major. “It all leads back to the President and how he runs his administration. The U.S. Government scrambles to the aid other countries in relief after a big disaster; I can’t believe they would wait to help their own citizens.”“This has truly made it clear to me that there have been two societies in this nation for a long time,” communications professor and Detroit News political blogger Bonnie Bucqueroux said. “We have made no progress or inroads into poverty—if anything, it’s on the rise.”
A large amount of the American population began to curse the federal government for its shortcoming. Within the time it took from when the hurricane hit to when the administration finally decided to send a reasonable amount of aid, FEMA, already fumbling with the lack of a response plan, began a rigorous campaign of explanations while Bush took a considerable amount of heat from the public and media.
As stories began to stack and pictures began to surface, tension in the Expose household began to rise. Although she eventually discovered her family was in tact, Expose still expressed a great deal of anger and questioned efforts made by the government. “I’m very angry that more wasn’t done to evacuate residents, and the government’s lack of involvement is upsetting,” she said. “I hate to bring race into it, but I can’t help but feel that if New Orleans had been a different demographic, the whole situation would have been handled faster and more efficiently.”
“I’ve been reading a lot of editorials from people who aren’t from the Gulf Coast and who don’t have family there, and they applaud the administration for their part in the relief effort, and it makes me extremely angry,” she added. “I have spoken to family members who were there through the whole hurricane and the aftermath, and for people to praise a government that doesn’t seem to bat an eyelash at its own citizens dying, it’s appalling.”
Some students do not necessarily think race directly played a large role in relief effors. “Within the city, a large percent of the victims were poor African Americans, but I think the fact that they were poor had more to do with the situation than the fact that they were also black,” said packaging junior Michael Lohmeier. “For the poor it was harder to simply flee the city, and that is where the problem came. They were simply unable to get out.”
Lohmeier had been watching the Katrina disaster with skepticism, but while most were quick to jump on the back of the administration, he saw the situation in a different light. “It was harder to simply flee the city, and once inside, once the water was rising, race and money no longer matter. They were now in a desperate situation,” he said. “With no infrastructure left, saving these people would take time. I think it was their situation, and the situation in the city that prevented prompt rescue.”
Other students share Lohmeir’s view. “It is indeed a tragedy, but no one could have foreseen the devastation,” geological science junior Eric Ventura said. “As much as I dislike the current administration, I don’t think race can be attributed to anything that is viewed as a bad move by our government in terms of Hurricane Katrina.”
The rift in perspectives has made racial issues float to the top of national debate. A poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 71 percent of blacks feel that Katrina showed racial inequality as still being prevalent throughout the nation, while 56 percent of whites feel this was not the lesson to be learned by the disaster. The same poll stated that 66 percent of blacks thought government response would have been faster if Katrina survivors happened to be white, while 77 percent of whites felt differently.
Bucqueroux emphasized that the nation’s cultural divide has been evident for quite awhile and entitled Katrina as a cultural resurfacing. “If people thought there was a white face on the person who was being denied welfare benefits wouldn’t happen—but since it’s a black face, well that’s acceptable”
As issues of race and class surrounding Hurricane Katrina continue to churn, the continuance of relief efforts at MSU are also present. Barbara Steidle, the point-person for all Katrina relief efforts at MSU, cited numerous programs and events that students and faculty are doing to benefit the situation. Steidle’s list included temporary housing for Tulane University students, numerous donations such as a cut from football game day profits and several benefits (a comprehensive listing can be found on the MSU Web site).
Let MSU’s perspective as a diverse campus be our advantage. There are few places in the country where one can find a cultural makeup quite like ours. While opinions will differ, let students’ mutual respect for each other and our backgrounds set us apart. What matters is that we care passionately enough about humanity to react to a disaster instead of finding a way to distance ourselves from it.
But what also matters is the debate itself— and that we choose to stay engaged to issues that affect everyone. Sometimes our differences can show us how similar we really are.
Beneath our very different skins, we all bleed red, green and white.

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