I have read many reports, articles and opinings about Katrina and Rita, and this has great personal meaning to me. I was born in New Orleans and most of my dad’s family still lives there. I live in Theodore, AL, in the delta south of Mobile, AL, near Bayou La Batre, which was also devastated by Katrina, and the year before that, Ivan.
The condemnation spewing out of conservative talking heads regarding the victims of Katrina and other natural disasters is an example of how ideology gets in the way of truth and compassion. The idea that what happened in New Orleans, Mississippi and the affected areas of the Gulf Coast was somehow the fault of the people living there is ridiculous.
Many people who don’t live on a coastal area where hurricanes are common don’t realize the expense of fleeing from a hurricane. Not only do you have to spend the money and labor to board your house up and secure it (along with the rest of your extended family’s homes), unplugging computers and phones and appliance, and moving anything on the bottom floor that might flood up the stairs, including any furniture that you value. You also have to stock up on food, water, ice and other supplies, including gasoline (which always raises about 50-100% in value right before and after a storm) to fuel both cars and electric generators (electricity and phone service were out for about six weeks after Hurricane Frederick and about four weeks for Ivan and Katrina). Businesses usually don’t open for a few days to several weeks or months (depends on the level of devastation), including gas stations — anything that requires power won’t work. So, no work, no gas, no take-out food, no grocery stores. Things like drinking water, ice, refrigeration and air conditioning are better than gold. Kitchens become little more than a coleman stove, fireplace or bonfire. Most of the time the larger hurricanes occur during the hottest part of the summer when temperatures reach over 90 degrees.
If you evacuate (and living on the water, it is necessary), you have the expense of gasoline to get to and from wherever you’re going, hotel bills, restaurant and food, water, ice, Rx medicine, etc. One hurricane and evacuation can run up from $700 to $1000 dollars a pop per person. And in the last few years, our area has been hit with two or three major hurricanes a season (one season there was about one a week for a couple of months), so that’s about $3000 out of your regular income (if you get paid during the hurricane at all, some don’t). In fact, when Katrina came, I was tapped out of extra cash and stayed in our home on the water because I really didn’t have other options, including the fact that I couldn’t find a place to board my cats or to take them with me. Luckily, the flooding and water from the river only got to the bottom floor of our house.
While all this is going on, if you work, you have to prepare your office for the storm, including securing the computer equipment and files, not just boarding up the outside. The biggest problem with hurricanes is flooding, as most of the rest of America found out during Katrina. While all this is going on and until power has been restored to the office building, no one is able to work. That means those who work for an hourly wage often don’t get paid for several weeks, and when I say don’t get paid, I mean they can’t work to earn it and never get paid for the weeks their business is not operating. The bills, however, have no problem getting to your mailbox. Gasoline to run generators can cost over $1000 in a couple of weeks, and this just keeps the refrigerator and freezer going and maybe a fan or window-unit air conditioner.
Now, this is what it is like for someone of working age who has a decent job, at least some credit or savings, owns a car and has the ability to evacuate. What about those who are elderly, poor, unemployed, without transportation, who don’t have a credit card to use to make a hotel reservation or pay for an airline or bus ticket, and who can’t afford $1000 cash per person about three times a year? Keep in mind, if you don’t have a car, you have to arrange for transportation and have enough money for bus fare or plane fare, etc. And most transportation companies in the affected area are trying to get themselves and their families out, too. How do you do all of that on an unemployment check that pays $212/week at the most? Or on a welfare check? On a social security check? And what about your pets? These are all the problems that faced not just the poor, but working class and middle class Americans during Katrina and Rita. And, as we know now, the devastation was over a large area, so you had to evacuate a much further distance than is usual.
And that dpesn’t even begin to cover the expenses of cleaning up your yard and home, assuming you have a home to come home to. In disasters like Katrina, people weren’t allowed to go to their homes for weeks. Mold and mildew in carpet, furniture and drywall could have been avoided if they had been able to get back to their homes and begin taking all that stuff out immediately. But the decision was made to lock the city down in order to prevent looting and crime, so the residents could not take care of their homes for almost a month. By that time, mildew and mold had ruined everything inside the house. Anything that might have been salvaged was beyond repair, increasing the cost of damages and repair. Most homeowners had to gut the inside of their houses and treat the framing with mold and mildew killer before they could even begin to have their homes repaired. My cousin waited six months for a FEMA trailer. He applied the day after the storm. The trailer was reclaimed by FEMA this past February, but he is still living with his Mom in her house because he couldn’t find construction companies to work on the house. He waited six weeks to get an estimate for the repairs. He finally got someone to fix the roof, and he is now doing most of the work himself rather than wait any longer. But he still has to pay property taxes and mortgage payments on a house that is uninhabitable. And he was an upper middle class homeowner with insurance, a decent income and good credit.
To hear conservatives talk about how it was the responsibility of the individuals to get themselves out is just nuts. How? How were they supposed to do that? Most bus lines weren’t running. Planes are grounded within a certain time before and after the storm. Taxis don’t keep operating up to the last minute, assuming you could afford one. Rental cars are depleted very quickly once a storm has been declared to be headed your way. And all of that requires money in advvance or a credit card with a decent credit limit. The poor people in the Ninth Ward did not have the resources to just pick up and drive away. Nor did many middle class residents. And many of them paid for their poverty and/or lack of options with their lives or the lives of family members, friends and neighbors.
There was an “enlightenment” experienced by many Americans after Katrina in that most realized their government was not capable of handling a large disaster. If we can’t handle a natural disaster that gives us days of warning, how in hell would we respond to coordinated multiple terrorist attacks affecting a large region or multiple metropolitan areas with no warning whatsoever? Katrina showed us just how unprepared and incomptent our government truly is.
But it also showed how the American people themselves without any government coordination will rise up and help their neighbors. People from my church and other churches in Mobile and the surrounding Gulf Coast area were in Bayou La Batre, Mississippi and New Orleans the minute after the storm armed with chainsaws, food, water, tents, clothes, medical supplies, etc. The government couldn’t get to those people (or so they said), but our church did. For months, we provided these services free of charge and without government compensation, using volunteers to clean up, rebuild, cook meals, provide transportation to stores, doctors, etc. No one was worried about what race or economic class or religion the folks they were helping were. The only criteria was based on the fact that they needed help. This is what America is truly about.
The conservative talking heads who were chastising those devastated by these hurricanes were quick to judge and offer hostile criticism, but you didn’t see them out in those communities in the heat and humidity and mosquitoes and devastation doing anything to help, did you?