Southern Lit–"Through Hell And High Water"

Back when I was in college, my buddy Jay Kasberger (when you find this on Google, email me, Bone!) and I used to while away our dateless evenings—which were few and far between, believe you me—by going to the local Giant food store in Williamsburg, Virginia. There, we’d take full advantage of a poorly-planned store layout that had situated the comic books and bulk foods right next to one another. Bulk foods, for those of you not in the know, were gigantic bins full of pretty much any kind of nonperishable food item you could imagine. But we weren’t interested in the dog food, flour, or birdseed. No, we’d load up Hefty bags full of candy—malted milk balls; yogurt pretzels; Goo Goo Clusters; and pretty much everything ever manufactured in the medium of gummi: gummi worms, gummi fish, even gummi fetuses. We’d load up these sacks, rationalize that we were acting in the tradition of Robin Hood (who’s poorer than a college student?), and go hang next to the Hey Kids! Comics! rack for a couple hours, trolling through X-Men, Teen Titans, Hulk, Avengers, and all the other classics of the age.

Hang on, I’m going somewhere with this.

I treat iTunes the same way I treated that Giant. Sure, I buy plenty of stuff from iTunes. But brother, I download any freakin’ free thing I can get from that place. I’ve gotten more crappy pseudo-electro-lounge-funk tunes and halfwit DOA pilot episodes than you could possibly believe. And when Apple started offering podcasts, well, I could’ve loaded a 60GB video with all the free goods I’ve downloaded.

Which brings me to “Through Hell And High Water,” the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s 22-part series on two downtown New Orleans hospitals trying to weather Hurricane Katrina. (From Gummi fetuses to iTunes to Katrina. That’s how we roll.) I’d read pieces of the series when it came out in the paper, but it wasn’t until the whole thing came out in a podcast—on iTunes, and hence free—that I downloaded it and began absorbing the entire four-hour saga. And now, on the anniversary of Katrina, at a time when the Bush-administration spin is running fast and furious (The checks are coming, promise!, the president said today, while shills like Sean Hannity claim that that mainstream liberal media glosses over the fact that New Orleans had a better than 95 percent survival rate after the floodwaters hit! Why aren’t we celebrating that, huh?), this story of hospitals left to fend for themselves is a necessary one to know.

It’s a painful read (listen?), because writer Jane O. Hansen accurately delineates how the crisis unfolded through multiple pairs of eyes. The series details the way two hospitals—the well-financed private Tulane facility and the poor, public Charity Hospital—dealt with the ever-escalating threats from Katrina. From the hurricane, to the flood, to the diseased waters, to the roving bands of thugs and snipers, to the desperate attempts at evacuation, this series takes us right into the blood-and-feces-stained halls of the two hospitals. Hansen avoids the easy rich-hospital-bad, poor-hospital-good bias, noting that the way that Tulane’s parent corporation mobilized national resources for the relief effort was a model for future disaster planning. If anybody comes off looking bad, it’s the media for erroneously reporting—twice—that both hospitals were evacuated, even as hundreds of critically ill patients and staff watched those reports on CNN. The government’s incompetence is a given, every bit as expected and as implacable as the rising floodwaters.

I expect “Through Hell and High Water” will become a book—which would be a good thing, because its sole flaw is the fact that there’s not enough backstory here. (Understandable because of the column-inch limitations of the newspaper medium.) I’m not sure it’ll win any awards—alas, heart-wrenching Katrina stories are kind of like redemptive Red Sox stories in October 2004—but it deserves to be read, or heard. And it’s free, so you’ve got no excuse.

Go to the AJC’s “Hell and High Water” website for the iTunes link and photos from the hospitals. It’s another reminder of a national debacle that shouldn’t ever be forgotten.

Jay

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