Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster by Michael Eric Dyson

Michael Eric Dyson continues to prove that he is more than a “media darling” of the academic world. The oft-imitated sage of hip-hop culture and voice of the African American dispossessed offers a powerful and poignant challenge to America’s political culture and racialized consciousness with Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. If the winds of Hurricane Katrina blew the roof off the fault lines of race and class in contemporary America, Michael Eric Dyson’s thunderous and thorough analysis reveals that decades of government policies vis-à-vis the “least of these” ruptured the levees of civic trust long before Katrina hit.

It is with this latter point that Dyson effectively frames the Katrina debate in the first half of the book. The initial chapter, “Unnatural Disasters” describes the concentrated levels of poverty in the Gulf States in general and New Orleans in particular. Rather than place the blame at the feet of the poor Dyson demonstrates how federal and local governments aided in cutting off persons from decent housing, economic and educational opportunities with legalized segregation and planned metropolitan expansion that sought to ensconce the poor in the shadows of southern society. This created acute levels of poverty that rank among the highest in America. Dyson points out that this nation’s willful ignorance and malevolent naivety concerning its poorer and disproportionately darker citizens should not be obfuscated by our collective post-Katrina “Oh My God!” moment or ephemeral acts of charity.

The second and third chapters, “Does George W. Bush Care About Black People?” and “The Politics of Disaster,” turn our attention squarely toward the “rhythms, relations, and rules of race” that informed the federal government’s response to Katrina, or lack thereof, and the anemic structuring of FEMA that has been embattled by a history of what the author refers to as “a combination of cronyism, politicization, inexperience and incompetence” respectively. According to Dyson, Katrina uncovered a culture of “passive indifference” to the problems plaguing poor black folk that as a matter of consequence is indistinguishable from “active malice.” Dyson explains that Kanye West’s charge against George Bush was not against the President’s personal feelings toward black people but his professional and political pedigree. Though many Americans may not hold personal animus against poor blacks, Dyson does outline a structure of feeling in American culture based on an a priori conception of black guilt and inferiority that causes many to display attitudes of apathy toward black suffering humanity at best.

For instance, in the chapter entitled “Levees and Lies” the author shows that George Bush’s capacity to cut federal spending to the city of New Orleans by $71 million in 2005 — monies that would have been used to reinforce the already haggard 17th Street levee amidst warnings of an impending hurricane season that could leave the city underwater — is emblematic of the way an attitude of indifference has very real consequences in terms of public policy. This is aside from the President flying over the tragedy to attend Senator John McCain’s birthday party in Arizona. As only Dyson could put it, “while New Orleans flooded, the president ate cake.”

Probably the most troubling aspect of the book is when the author lists explicitly the ways FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security hid in the bushes of bureaucracy while New Orleans residents suffered and died. In “Guns and Butters (or FEMA-nizing of Disaster)” we witness the federal government’s high pain threshold when it involves the poor. The failure to take advantage of the USS Bataan (an 844 foot military ship that holds helicopters, physicians, six hundred hospital beds and that can make a 100,000 gallons of water a day) which sat in the Gulf primed to be deployed, five hundred airboat pilots from Florida who volunteered for relief efforts, and three Wal-Mart tractor-trailer trucks full of water were just a few of the many callous miscalculations exhibited in the aftermath of Katrina. If these examples were not heart wrenching enough, finding out that a federal official ordered a volunteer physician to stop performing chest compressions on a dying man since he was not registered with FEMA truly signifies the depth of disregard for human life.

To be sure, after painting such a horrific picture of the federal government’s insouciant response, Dyson unleashes his prophetic barrage on the mass media. The author reminds the reader how the media provided the proverbial vinegar to quench the victims’ thirst. Depicted as looters and thugs, New Orleans residents were initially placed outside of the bounds of civic compassion. This makes sense, according to Dyson, since the natural “frame of reference” in discussing poor black folk in America is one of criminality and victimology. Hence it was only natural for the media to respond in such an overtly racist and unsympathetic manner.

But as members of the media, particularly African American journalists, began to “one-two-step” away from the egregious representations of Katrina’s victims, Dyson appears to be justifiably saying, “I told you so.” In an ancillary sense, the author uses the events of Katrina to tell the African American community that they cannot have it both ways. One should not shout “Amen” when Bill Cosby disses poor black folk yet cry foul when the media refers to African American citizens stranded at the Superdome as “refugees.”

So in sum, Katrina proved that Michael Eric Dyson was Right! The Black Middle Class Did Lose its Mind! (See review of Is Bill Cosby Right?) The author just seems to prove this point better in Come Hell or High Water as he stopped “playing the dozens” with Bill Cosby long enough to offer a true principled defense of poor black folk — a defense that all American citizens would do well to not only read but heed. According to the author, the failure of America to protect its most vulnerable has left a judgment upon this nation of biblical proportion. Therefore Dyson concludes the text by offering a means to collective repentance; namely transforming the Jericho Road by promoting a candid discourse on race and class in American society and holding the federal government accountable to ensure continued support for the displaced and dispossessed. For in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets Michael Eric Dyson is seemingly surmising in Come Hell or High Water: “God gave America the Katrina sign. No more water, the fire next time.”