This country has suffered two epic tragedies in recent years, but I was around for neither. Both on 9/11 and during Hurricane Katrina, I was abroad, thousands of miles away. Of course, there was nothing planned about this, but as symbolism, it was distressingly apt.
I was born in the former Soviet Union, not far north of where Soviet authorities assured us Chernobyl’s toxic seepage ended. Plenty of immigrants make well-adjusted, grateful homes in their adopted homelands – especially this one, with its bounty of economic opportunities and political liberties – but this wasn’t my experience. In the Soviet Union, and with fellow Russians in America, we were voluble, emotional, recklessly giving. In New York and its suburbs, where I grew up, I encountered guardedness and what I later learned to call enlightened self-interest. In the Soviet Union, human relationships were a reprieve from the harshness of a subsistence-level life in an unfree, prejudiced country. In the States, so much seemed off-limits when two people began a conversation. There were no bullies in the yard demanding to know if my last name was Jewish, but I felt more estranged.
When the planes hit, I felt nothing. This was neither the numbness of shock nor the silent glee of festering resentment, but plain indifference. In a seaside town in Portugal, I watched a couple of hours of CNN and went swimming. In the following days, I tried desperately to summon feeling for what was happening in New York – the President amid the rubble, the anguished vigils downtown – but to no avail. It was as if it was all happening to someone else’s country. Those steely, wary people – the ones I had decided typified America – were now crying and embracing each other on the streets of New York. But it only made me angry. And jealous.
Almost four years later, I was in southern Mexico as Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the Gulf Coast. In Internet cafes, I read the Times headlines and wondered not about survivors stranded on rooftops but what the scenes of Third World misery in New Orleans were doing to immigrant families like mine, so many of which had come to America because it was invincible.
So it surprised more than a few of my friends when I signed on to help write the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s official report on Hurricane Katrina. I had remained aloof from politics during my years in the U.S., not casting my first ballot until 2004, when I was 25, and I was from New York, where it’s almost civic duty for ordinary New Yorkers to disparage Washington as incompetent and inefficient (additional adjectives come to mind when conversation turns to this Administration). But I wondered if first-hand experience in a field of such importance to the American public might help me feel more at home.
I was the youngest member of the investigative staff and certainly the least politically experienced, but I was given tremendous latitude in shaping its findings into an account of the catastrophe. The implicit direction was to do what I thought was right – a space for improvisation that is, apparently, more abundant in government work than any New York skeptic ever imagined. For a freelance journalist – an ostensibly liberating lifestyle that actually consists of satisfying a different editor’s restrictions every week – this was the opportunity to explore, make mistakes, and learn about my skills that New York journalism somehow never turned out to be. I did all these things and felt connected to my writing in a way I never had before.
Not long after I arrived, several hundreds Katrina survivors converged on Washington to demand changes in the way the federal government doled out reconstruction aid. This lobbying operation was low on polish – at a Senate event, a representative of a survivors’ organization kept referring to our Committee’s top Democrat, who came to speak, as “Senator Liederman” – but high on unvarnished, bewildered need. As I walked through the aisles, my shirt and tie giving me away as a staffer, hands reached out and stories of unimaginable privation followed. These people didn’t much care if I had authentic feeling for their ordeals or not; in their eyes, I was in a position to help, and, as I took down their phone numbers that day, they made sure I knew they expected me to.
Spurred in part by that day’s unnerving reminder of why the Committee was conducting its investigation, we decided that survivor accounts should anchor the report, whose main focus was why the government response mechanism failed. Through ACORN, the survivors’ organization, and friends on the Gulf Coast, investigation team members located and interviewed storm victims while I sewed their accounts into a narrative of the disaster that eventually became the report’s lengthy introduction. We were like cub reporters for some tiny backwater broadsheet, relying on personal contacts to tell the story of America’s greatest natural disaster in the last hundred years. It was all startlingly intimate, and we would share looks of disbelief, about what survivors had experienced but also about how electrifying it felt to be this close to them. It seemed as if the phone calls meant quite a bit on the other end as well.
We learned about a general surgeon repairing a severed radial artery while an assistant held a flashlight at flooded Hancock Medical Center in coastal Mississippi; Robert Latham, Mississippi’s head of emergency management, having to purchase a truck hauling ice to accommodate a funeral home overflowing with corpses because FEMA’s “reefer” trucks hadn’t arrived; a woman in the Superdome who had decided not to eat so as not to be subjected to the humiliation of having to defecate in an empty MRE box in front of hundreds; a 9-year-old boy dragging his grandmother on a blanket up Interstate 610 in New Orleans because she was too weak to make it on her own; the male survivors snatching children away from their mothers because there was a rumor that children with their guardians were being evacuated from the Superdome first.
The investigation uncovered no evidence of racially motivated neglect, but it did come across what appeared to be instance after instance of government officials looking for ways to minimize the likely impact of the storm. As Max Mayfield, the director of the National Hurricane Center, made alarmed calls to impress upon federal, state, and local officials that Katrina was going to be catastrophic, FEMA dispatched a single employee – a public-affairs official – to the disaster area. Staff at the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC) – which is responsible for keeping senior government personnel informed during a disaster – ignored, disregarded, or simply failed to obtain widely available, authoritative information about the scope of the catastrophe, giving equal credibility to the occasional report that the bullet had been dodged. (As the HSOC director admitted during the investigation, his unit didn’t even have a plan to maintain situational awareness during Katrina.) The day after the storm, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff flew to a conference on avian flu in Atlanta. President Bush confined himself to unsubstantiated bromides during his video-teleconferences with emergency officials. Everyone wanted to believe that Katrina would be another false alarm, that none of the scenarios forewarned by meteorologists and emergency-management experts for years would come to pass. Simple compassion seemed to be in staggeringly short supply among some of the people charged with the well-being of those on the Gulf Coast.
As I experienced these dizzying feelings for the first time, I recalled how George Balanchine, who had had his own trouble feeling at home in America, had said that it was only after he married the ballerina Maria Tallchief, who was half-Native American, that he became truly American. Were it only so easy. The more helpful lesson, I thought, was from Vivian Gornick, who wrote in an essay about the early-20th-century immigrant writer Anzia Yezierska that America has no place for those who come expecting to be loved and despair when their emotional needs remain unaddressed. An immigrant must reach for America, must absorb its mores, however unfamiliar, and see what comes of the new alchemy. In the 80 years since Yezierska wrote her stories of immigrants reproaching America’s hardness – a time when immigrants were expected to assimilate and subordinate themselves to native standards and priorities – ethnicity has become not only less suspect, but a virtue that makes the bearer more American. But this multiculturalism also sanctions an insular, atomized existence heedless of the turbulent, trying, beautiful life going on outside its borders. “We don’t go to America,” that is, outside the neighborhood, is the embarrassing refrain in Brighton Beach, the Russian enclave in southern Brooklyn.
It was I who was the guarded one until I accidentally devoted myself to the tragedy on the Gulf Coast. It was my assimilation, and I feel myself a truer American for having been a part of it.