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.
Discussions about race began almost immediately after Katrina hit on Aug. 29. On Sept. 9, according to NBC News, President George W. Bush told the public, “The storm didn’t discriminate and neither will we in the recovery effort.”
But victims disagree.
“I blame local. I blame state. I blame federal,” Katrina victim Doreen Keller said at Tuesday’s hearings. “I think we got disappointed by every rank of government that exists.”
‘I just don't frankly believe it’
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.
‘We have to acknowledge it’
The hearing was held by a special House committee, chaired by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., investigating the government’s preparations and response to Katrina. It was requested by Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“Racism is something we don’t like to talk about, but we have to acknowledge it,” McKinney said. “And the world saw the effects of American-style racism in the drama as it was outplayed by the Katrina survivors.”
The five white and two black lawmakers who attended the hearing mostly sat quietly during two and a half hours of testimony. But tempers flared when evacuees were asked by Miller to not compare shelter conditions to a concentration camp.
“I’m going to call it what it is,” Hodges said. “That is the only thing I could compare what we went through to.”
Of five black evacuees who testified, only one said he believed the sluggish response was the product of bad government planning for poor residents — not racism.
NBC News’ Kerry Sanders and the Associated Press contributed to this report.