WASHINGTON—Black survivors of Hurricane Katrina said Tuesday that racism contributed to the slow disaster response, at times likening themselves in emotional congressional testimony to victims of genocide and the Holocaust.
The comparison is inappropriate, according to Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. “Not a single person was marched into a gas chamber and killed,” Miller told the survivors.
“They died from abject neglect,” retorted community activist Leah Hodges. “We left body bags behind . . . The people of New Orleans were stranded in a flood and were allowed to die.”
Angry evacuees described being trapped in temporary shelters where one New Orleans resident said she was “one sunrise from being consumed by maggots and flies.” Another woman said military troops focused machine gun laser targets on her granddaughter’s forehead. Others said their families were called racial epithets by police.
“No one is going to tell me it wasn’t a race issue,” said New Orleans evacuee Patricia Thompson, 53, who is now living in College Station, Texas. “Yes, it was an issue of race. Because of one thing: when the city had pretty much been evacuated, the people that were left there mostly was black.”
According to a recent Gallup poll, NBC News’ Kerry Sanders reported on Tuesday, six out of every 10 black New Orleans residents said if most of Katrina’s victims were white, relief would have arrived sooner.
Not all lawmakers seemed persuaded.
“I don’t want to be offensive when you’ve gone though such incredible challenges,” said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. But referring to some of the victims’ charges, like the gun pointed at the girl, Shays said: “I just don’t frankly believe it.”
“You believe what you want,” Thompson said.
Shays also questioned a claim that the federal government unleashed this tragedy on New Orleans’ black residents on purpose.
“I was on my front porch,” Diane Cole French said at the hearings. “I have witnesses that they bombed the walls of the levee.”
“I don’t know if that’s theater or the truth,” Shays responded.