The novelist Richard Ford, in an opinion piece in The New York Times on Sept. 4, ruminating on the devastation of his home town, called New Orleans a city beyond the reach of empathy. For a while it looked that way. On Aug. 25, 2005, the people of New Orleans were told to evacuate their city. If they did not, they would have to weather a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. Although earlier studies had noted that the city could not withstand a Category 4, and a declaration of disaster was made before landfall, the Superdome was recommended as an alternative shelter for those who would remain in New Orleans. After the storm of the 28th and 29th, the horrific news began to come on Tuesday, the 30th. By Wednesday morning, a national newspaper could run the headline The Situation Is Dire. It would be two more days before food and water arrived for people stranded in shelters, on roofs, at the Superdome or the Convention Center.
We all know the story. Thousands lived without sustenance, plumbing, electricity, information or visible support from the nation’s leadership. For three days the president seemed to do little other than present a statement in which he read a laundry list of things that were going to be done. This was on behalf of those affected by the dark times in the affected areas.
There was something missing here. It was empathy. Richard Ford did not define the word in his essay, so I will. Empathy is the capacity to share in, to identify with the emotions, situations, motivations of someone other than oneself, especially someone in anguish or sorrow.
It felt, at least to other countries, that a nation and its president just sat by while people were suffering from thirst, babies shriveled up, the infirm in wheelchairs slowly dwindled away, and women gave birth unattended. On Wednesday a mother, holding her baby, still had hope. We are all just helping each other. By Friday she was screaming, her baby now feverish and difficult to wake up. One wondered: did our leaders even watch their television sets? A fourth grader said, It is so pitiful and shameful.
Generous hearts donated money. First responders did all they could. Houston and other cities opened their lives and their doors. Reporters broke down and politicians choked up. But the truth remains. People lived in torturous conditions for two or three days. And there was a strange distance from their plight.
On Thursday, Rush Limbaugh had his say on the radio. To the fact that 67 percent of the inhabitants of New Orleans are black and half of their children live in poverty, he claimed that race and class are irrelevant. Liberalism and the welfare state were the problems. If the citizens of New Orleans did not get out, it was their problem. If they had no automobiles, it was due to the fact that they were not good capitalists. If thousands seemed abandoned for two days, he could blame the corruption of the Democratic and black regime for the catastrophe. One wonders whether he did not appear on his Friday show because he may have received the grace of shame.
The rich and privileged are often so removed from the reality of the poor that they have no idea how crucial a payday is. We might not realize that many people did not obey the evacuation orders because they could not. Most of them had used the public transportation system that now was not made available for them to leave. Many had no money.
By Friday, a degree of empathy seemed to emerge in the demeanor of the president. It started when he saw the people suffering in Mississippi, only after he abandoned the publicity ritual of thanking political figures, many of whom themselves were remiss. And yet there remained the strange lack of connection. A number of times he referred to the devastated region as this part of the world. Was it like, for him, another part of the world than ours? He finally seemed to make it his world when he encountered the dispossessed and heartbroken in Louisiana.
It was the willingness to identify with the anguish of someone other than oneself that allowed a few exceptional persons to respond days earlier. That is why Harry Connick Jr. took it upon himself, despite the dangers, to go the Superdome to calm its anxious thousands. That is why Sanjay Gupta, M.D., insisted on getting to the same Charity Hospital that medical supplies could not get to. That is why an NBC cameraman, Tony Sabbada, could enter the Superdome to console its people and record its horror. While some commentators made the disaster a looting story or an oil story or a story of where the N.F.L. might relocate, these three men shared the hellish 48 hours the people of New Orleans were going through.
This is not blame-mongering. There will be time enough for assessing the responsibilities unmet not only for one week, but for decades. What is clear now is this: There are profound problems of class inequities in America. We must learn that we are a people, just as we must learn that we are citizens of a world. We may know how to go to war, but we have yet to learn how to see the world the way the least of our brothers and sisters see it. They suffer first, longest and last.
The very poor, the very young and the very old are not high priorities for this culture and economic system. The tragedy of New Orleans has made this painfully clear. If it is now a time for reassessment, rebuilding and resettling, let it also be a time for the rebirth of empathy.