Iceberg, Plague, Flood

Asked on September 1 about the high death toll from Hurricane Katrina, Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said, “Unfortunately, that's going to be attributable to a lot of people who did not heed the advance warnings.” He added: “I don't make judgments about why people chose not to leave.”

His remarks echo the reasons offered in 1912 for why steerage passengers on the doomed Titanic were more likely to perish than first-class travelers. In that disaster, 53 percent of first- and second-class passengers were saved -- because they had first dibs on the lifeboats -- compared to only 25 percent of those traveling third-class. “It has been suggested before the Enquiry that the third-class passengers had been unfairly treated,” wrote Lord Mersey, in his official investigation for the British Parliament. Outraged at the accusation, Mersey's remarks eerily prefigure those of the FEMA director: “It is no doubt true that the proportion of third-class passengers saved falls far short of the proportion of the first and second class, but this is accounted for by the greater reluctance of the third-class passengers to leave the ship, by their unwillingness to part with their baggage, by the difficulty in getting them up from their quarters…”

In other words, the steerage clientele made bad choices -- which happened to be the only choices available. But neither the New Orleans residents who stayed behind nor the Titanic's most indigent passengers “chose” to be heedless. If officials don't provide enough lifeboats, people drown.

In our hyper-individualistic culture, Americans like to believe that we are each in control of our health, wealth, and destiny. But crisis disproportionately traps society's most marginalized members. For many of Katrina's victims, this disaster is only the latest misfortune in a life lived on the edge. People residing in the hurricane's path were twice as likely as most Americans to be poor and to live without a car. Many were undocumented immigrants. In New Orleans, now sunk below the water line, 28 percent of residents were sunk below the poverty line. Of those, 84 percent were black.

Without lifeboats -- or, in this case, car, cash, credit, connections, or the confidence they could make their way elsewhere -- the odds were against them. Authorities knew that in advance. During a 2004 simulation drill, dubbed Hurricane Pam, officials predicted not only that New Orleans' levees would be swamped, but also that while 1,000,000 people would be evacuated in time, another 300,000 -- mostly poor residents without transportation -- would be left behind. Back in the mid-19th century, when social philosopher Friedrich Engels discovered the same bureaucratic complacency in stacks of British government reports replete with data on how poverty and filth were ravaging citizens' health, he leveled a stark accusation: “social murder.”

If Katrina exposes anything, it is that American leaders abandoned a sense of collective responsibility for the health and well-being of our citizens. Long before the storm, we saw a rising tide of willful ignorance, of national policies that flouted science and observable social realities. The United States has the greatest gap in wealth of any industrialized nation. People at the top have been able to avert their eyes from the hardship at the bottom.

The inequality and indifference festering in America in 2005 resembles that in London during the great plague of 1665, an epidemic that claimed a fifth of the population. Samuel Pepys, the civil servant and obsessive diarist, was lucky enough to install himself, his family, and his clerks in Greenwich and Woolwich, though an unfortunate maid was consigned to stay in the plague-ridden city. As the Bills of Mortality steadily rose, Pepys almost gleefully informs us, so did his investments.

In September of that horrific year, with England in debt and war raging against Holland, Pepys and a fellow Sunday parishioner discussed the state of the nation under King Charles II: “Talking of the ill-government of our Kingdom, nobody setting to heart the business of the Kingdom, but everybody minding their perticular (sic) profit or pleasures, the King himself minding nothing but his ease -- and so we let things go to wrack.” Does that sound like our own King George II?

It should. Our conservative administration has rejected the idea that government should try to prevent disaster -- both broad and individual -- from happening in the first place. It neglected to fix the levees or draw up detailed evacuation plans -- or tackle the poverty, joblessness, discrimination, and environmental toxins that even in relatively quiet times mean the difference between life and death. If the Bush team had paid as much attention to the threat of natural catastrophe (by bolstering FEMA) or the everyday perils of impoverished lives (by spending on public health and social welfare) as it had, say, to bioterrorism preparedness or tax cuts, hundreds or thousands of victims may have been saved.

But monumental myopia is hardly new. Though England had passed a Plague Act in 1604, it was as meaningless and flawed as America's current disaster readiness. Which is why Daniel Defoe's rendering of 1665 London, in A Journal of the Plague Year, applies all too well to post-Katrina 2005 New Orleans: “Surely never city, at least of this bulk and magnitude, was taken in a condition so perfectly unprepared for such a dreadful visitation … They were, indeed, as if they had had no warning, no expectation, no apprehensions, and consequently the least provision imaginable was made for it in a public way.”

When government relinquishes its responsibility, only those who can afford their own lifeboats will escape “dreadful visitations.” Though Defoe penned his docudramatic novel centuries before the 24-hour news cycle or the blogosphere, he perfectly captured the socioeconomic dimensions of the Gulf Coast's recent fright-and-flight syndrome: “[N]othing was to be seen but waggons and carts, with goods, women, servants, children, &c; coaches filled with people of the better sort, and horsemen attending them, and all hurrying away.”

Madeline Drexler is a Boston-based journalist and author of Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections (Penguin, 2003).