Last night I watched the 2007 documentary “The Axe in the Attic,” which followed the film’s makers, Ed Pincus and Lucia Small, to New Orleans six months after Hurricane Katrina. The pair embarked on a road trip following the trails of evacuees, going to cities within a hundred miles of the Lower 9th Ward to as far as Ohio and Texas, interviewing people. The evacuees’ insights were really illuminating in demonstrating the ways race, class, and gender intertwine in unraveling how the devastation of the Gulf Coast reflected on the unequal relationship between the federal government and certain groups of its citizens.
One white evacuee shared a story about white FEMA employees coming up to him and making racist remarks towards African Americans as if he would agree. He frankly shared his discomfort with the remarks, adding more to the glaring truth that the levees broke down in areas populated by mostly poor people of color and the grossly inadequate response by the government to aid its citizens. Listening to people talk about being faced at gunpoint in attempting to leave the city, witnessing people die, and wearing clothes soaked in chemicals to the point their skin burned really opened up my perspective on Katrina and my work here in Cambodia.
I am currently studying the impact of Typhoon Ketsana in two Cambodian provinces, Stung Treng and Ratanakiri. Ketsana caused unprecedented damage affecting rice and crop yields. People had to leave their homes. Animals were lost, property was damaged, and there were 3 deaths. Disease has spread due to unsanitary water and families have been facing food insufficiency and malnourishment. As I attempt to craft a study of how much damage has been done in the northeast part of the country, I thought about FEMA and the disaster response during Katrina. One evacuee in the film had to wait a whole year to receive aid. She left New Orleans to stay with family in Texas. I felt there were so many parallels between the experiences of Katrina survivors and the refugees from this country. Hurricane Katrina caused the largest internal migration in US history paralleling the movement of Khmers to the Thai-Cambodian border seeking food and shelter as well as the global dispersion to Western countries. The FEMA trailer parks resembled modern day refugee camps and illustrated to me the accuracy in viewing communities of color as the “third world” in the United States. Helps me to situate myself in having some sense of global responsibility and connect Cambodia, still a new place to me, with the people and issues I care about at home.