A few words about morality and the storm.
Meaning Katrina, which was a devastating hurricane, yes, but also a kind of Rorschach ink blot of right and wrong. Virtually from the moment it lumbered ashore at daybreak on Aug. 29, 2005, the storm began raising pointed ethical questions.
As in: Is it moral to break into a flooded and abandoned store in search of food and water? How about televisions and athletic shoes? Is it moral for storm-bound health care workers to euthanize critically ill patients? Is it moral for the suburbs to turn desperate evacuees from the city away at gunpoint?
Safe and dry, we have argued these and other questions from the comfort of our armchairs. It was a moral parlor game, a harmless way of plumbing the depths of conscience, pondering who and how we would be if ever we stood, or seemed to stand, at the end of all things.
Recent news about FEMA raised an entirely different question about morality: Namely, does this federal agency have any?
Don’t bet on it. It seems the Federal Emergency Management Agency refused, on the advice of its lawyers, to test whether the trailers it provided for hurricane evacuees contained unsafe levels of formaldehyde. According to documents released by Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House oversight committee, when FEMA staffers urged the agency to respond to reports of formaldehyde in the trailers, they received an e-mail from a FEMA lawyer that said, “Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. Once you get results, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.”
In other words, if we discover that the more than 120,000 trailers and mobile homes we have provided to families along the Gulf Coast are reeking with a toxic gas, we’ll be obligated to replace them. So it’s better if we don’t know.
Which raises a few moral questions of its own:
Is it moral to let women breathe a gas that may cause respiratory illness in order to save money?
Is it moral to leave men in conditions that may cause raw throats and burning eyes so as to avoid responsibility?
Is it moral to expose children to a compound believed to cause cancer if it helps cover one’s backside?
Apparently, for FEMA, the answers are yes, yes and yes. Which fits with jigsaw snugness the mindset of an administration that frequently chooses to refuse acceptance of knowledge that challenges its preconceptions. It also points up with piercing clarity the hypocrisy of that same administration’s frequent claims of fealty to the divine.
In the gospel of Matthew (25:40), after all, Jesus famously identifies himself with the poor. “Insomuch as you have done it to the least of these, my brethren, you have done it also unto me.”
Economically speaking, the victims of Hurricane Katrina are among the least of these, “our” brethren. The Census Bureau estimates the median yearly income in Orleans Parish at a little over $27,000. Yet after giving them inattention and incompetence, the federal government now gives them indifference.
As moral choices go, I would argue this is more damning than looting, euthanizing or meeting evacuees with guns. Say what you will about those decisions, but at least they were made in the heat of the moment, by people who saw the world falling down around them.
FEMA’s decision, by contrast, was cool, considered … and unfathomably cruel. And if its purpose was to shield the agency from legal repercussions, it’s also now a failure. Surely every trailer dweller who’s ever had so much as a headache is now seeking legal representation.
Something tells me FEMA is about to pay a high price for treating human beings like dirt. Morally, that’s just fine with me.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His e-mail address is: [email protected]