I Am That Girl Now

Thursday, September 01, 2005

I just don't know what to say.

It seems so petty and ridiculous to worry about weight-loss issues or health or food or exercise right now, in the face of pretty much having a major U.S. city drop into the ocean, that I've been concentrating on just being able to maintain my actions. Talking about them seemed-- and still does-- like a step over the line. So even though I promised a long time ago that I would keep this blog focused on health, food, exercise, and things related, and that I would try to sidestep doing (unrelated) political rants, I'm taking a break from that policy today.

I'm just stunned.

It's not so much the destruction that's boggling me as what it has revealed to me about the nature of hurricane evacuation. See, I grew up in Kansas. No hurricanes. Leaving town to flee a disaster is a concept foreign to me, although it is strongly drilled into my head that being prepared to get into the basement with any irreplaceables (better, into a hidey-hole with a concrete cap and a steel door with six contact points, as the Texas Tech Wind Sciences Department advises) any time a tornado comes within twenty miles. What little I've known about pre-hurricane evacuation is what I've historically seen on TV and in news articles, and the people they interview who leave never mention the cost of it, and the people they interview who are staying are always the die-hard rah-rah No Stupid Hurricane Is Gonna Tell Me What To Do boneheads, who never mention economic circumstances as a reason to stay. Perhaps I'm stupid, or ignorant, or just blissfully self-involved, but it never in a million years occurred to me to think about the financial ramifications of fleeing a storm.

First of all, there's the question of where one would go. If you don't have friends or relatives within a decent driving range, you apparently either have to sleep in your car or find a motel. I am told (now, after I've made an ass of myself among my friends who've lived in the South) that it's common practice for hotels and motels in the refugee zone to jack up their prices in response to the demand, as if fleeing from a hurricane is the same thing as wanting to attend Mardi Gras or the Superbowl. Even at normal prices, I find that staying at a hotel is something I'd have to budget for; since saving money is apparently a concept foreign to middle-class America (and impossible to manage for the lower class), I doubt that many people have a hurricane fund set up for the possibility that they'd have to stay out of town for a few days once or twice a summer.

Then there's the question of how to transport yourself out of town. Again, this is a situation that disproportionately favors everyone above a certain economic level; not only do you have to own a car, you have to be able to fuel it-- and under normal gas prices these days, that's a stretch, and again, price-gouging is common in the path of hurricane refugees. For those who don't have a car, you'd have to be able to afford a bus ticket-- oh, but wait, Greyhound stopped running busses out of New Orleans days before Katrina hit. So did the airlines, which left many tourists high and dry (although an article in a Chicago paper indicates that some well-off folk from Chi-town who were dropping their kid off for college at Tulane punted by hiring a limo to get out of town).

In short, unless you have a very good network of friends and family who can tote you out and let you crash on a couch somewhere, you must make this much money (imagine me holding my hand up at neck level) to indulge in the luxury of fleeing the storm. Also, you must be relatively young and healthy; if you're old and it's hard for you to get around, or if you are in a nursing home or a hospital, you're stuck. It's a marvel to me that the South keeps rejecting Darwinism, because they're living it. Only the strong (and the rich) survive. If you don't have the resources to make it out yourself, apparently you deserve what you get.

I always wondered why people stayed. Now I know. Only about 5% of them are the jackasses interviewed ahead of the storm by CNN or The Weather Channel, partaking of some kind of my-balls-are-bigger-than-yours contest and boasting that no storm can phase them. The other 95% just can't afford it, or might, might be able to afford it but can't take the chance that they'd be wasting money that they might otherwise be able to use for health care and food and clothing. Son of a bitch.

In Mississippi, which boasts the highest poverty rate in the nation, people are furious that they were abandoned to the wrath of the storm. Yeah, I'm with them on this one; I'd be pissed, too. In retrospect, what the hell is wrong with us that we don't have a system set up to accommodate this, that we force people to have to make these sorts of decisions, these sorts of desperate gambles? That's just wrong.

I'm seriously boggled here. I had no idea. I'm really dismayed at the lack of preparation, I'm horrified that the Army Corps of Engineers (who appear to have been almost single-handedly holding things together in normal times) had their funding cut again, and again, and again. I'm amazed at the sheer goodness of people that's coming out now-- the swift organization of websites where people can volunteer housing for refugees, the fundraising, the sharing of information-- but this is a clear case where an ounce of preparation would've been worth a ton of mop-up work after the fact. If there had been some network available (and widely publicized) for people to find a way out of the path of the storm and flooding, and to find shelter, the numbers of dead and injured and trapped down in Louisiana and Mississippi might be much lower right now. I'm not going to get into the question of whose place it is to develop that system, but seriously, this is one of those cases where decidedly not talking about the lower classes has directly led to the lower classes getting royally screwed.

Running to the basement to escape a tornado is easy, and cheap. Running away from a hurricane is complicated and costly. This sucks. This really, really sucks.


  • People have absolutely no idea what the Army Corps of Engineers does and why it's so important. I should know, I'm on the front line for companies and organizations trying to get them more funding. Too often their projects are seen as "pork" because congressmen are darn happy when they make infrastructure improvements and pull jobs into their districts. What most people don't realize is that they maintain all the levees and do all the beach protection projects that help in the face of huge storms. USACE is the reason Ivan and Charlie weren't bigger problems. The Corps also holds the contract for helping FEMA distribute ice, water and food in the event of a disaster such as Katrina.

    You hit it right on the head, Meg, as usual. What would help a lot to prevent such breaches in the future is for people to write to their congressmen and especially the Administration to make sure they know that people *realize* why this happened and how it could have been avoided. Namely, giving the Corps the full 8.2 billion they need instead of the paltry 4 or 5 billion they've been getting.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:01 PM  

  • Some other people who stayed are the hospitality workers like my sister, who is still there in a downtown hotel with her fiance and her kids. They could have left but some staff were needed and also where would they have gone? for all the reasons you point out, largely needing money for gas and hotels and lack of nearby family to flee to (I am in England). I last heard from her on Wednesday when she had food and water for about 3/4 days, and they were planning to try to leave town today- the outrageous thing is that this might not be safe and they could be carjacked on their way out and lose what little they have left. I can't believe that more army and National Guard units from the rest of the States have not yet been flown in to provide security for the evacuation, as well as helping with SAR. It's now day 5. I am also stunned that the city did not provide free buses before the hurricane hit to get people out of harm's way- it would have been better to use the school buses than leave them to be destroyed too.

    By Anonymous Jane, at 3:52 AM  

  • It's such an enormous task. The problem is, despite knowing the threat was there, despite knowing this was inevitable no one took it seriously. Now those people must suffer the consequences of that.

    And the mayor of New Orleans... he's a joke. Tuesday night, despite several shootings in the daylight hours, he was trying to convince reporters the city wasn't dangerous. He's changed his tune a bit.

    I feel for the politicians in charge down there, but you need to do more than try to squirm out of blame... Mississippi's governor was trying to claim they weren't better prepared because the storm hit Florida as a 1. So despite the almost week it took to move on to their coasts - the week it got so big it took up 3/4 of the Gulf and grew to a Category 5 storm, he had no warning. And, sorry, but you need to do a hell of a lot more than tell people to spend a day in prayer and thank god for sparing your life.

    By Anonymous Mae, at 8:33 AM  

  • I've been spending part of the week talking with my students about just this -- how natural disasters in general hurt the poor disproportionately more than the rich. Ever notice how, whenever you see a tornado hit, it's always in a trailer park for some reason? That's because tornadoes can pick up trailers. Not so much the big brick houses. And then, if you're poor, do you think you have the insurance to cover the cleanup? Nope nope, pretty much can't afford that if you're choosing between insurance and groceries.

    Oh, and check this out:

    Even in this horrifying calamity, we're still pulling this kind of crap. Lovely. Just lovely.

    Donate, folks. Pray if you're the praying type. Think of areas that others might not think of: libraries, schools, women's shelters, whatever's important to you, all destroyed. Give what you can.

    By Anonymous JB, at 9:36 AM  

  • Hey Meg - thanks for posting this. I've had the same problem with the handling of this disaster. So much could have been done BEFORE the storm hit to prevent the harm done to the people trapped down there. I can't even begin to imagine how much it will take to get these peoples' lives back on track...

    By Blogger Stacy, at 9:57 AM  

  • Meg, thanks so much for breaking your own rules on this. And thanks for focusing on the people stranded down there, and the inordinate resources they needed - and didn't have - to flee.

    I am disturbed how the media focus has turned so much to the "lawlessness", when there are literally thousands of people at, say, the convention center, who remain REMARKABLY calm and composed, after being abandoned for days, no food, no water, no authority, no TOILETS, with people literally dying around them and rats eating the bodies. For people to act out a bit? That would be understandable. But most people there are amazingly calm (I can't say *I* would be) and they should be commended - not feared.

    This is a third-world response. And it is absolutely horrifying to witness the utter lack of planning, and the real human suffering because of it.

    By Blogger Wendy, at 10:27 AM  

  • JB-- another fun thing about tornadoes is the fact that, as far as I know, no state has legislation requiring there to be underground shelter (or proper above-ground shelter, as studied extensively at Texas Tech's Wind Studies department) for the residents of a trailer park. Trailers don't have basements. If people are in their homes, and their homes are trailers, and the tornado finds them, they will be killed.

    That said, a healthy tornado can pick up whatever the hell it wants to. I spent a day or two over at a friend's grandparents' farm helping pick up what remained of one of the buildings that had been sucked completely away by a tornado. Nothing was left but the foundation and scraps strewn over acres of farmland. We found a shovel driven most of the way into the ground out in a pasture.

    If a tornado wants to pick up a brick house, it will; I helped my dad brick the front of our house once, and the brick is just on the front, held on by a few metal ties per square yard. Behind that, a house is 2x4s and plywood and drywall. A tornado can and will take it apart like nobody's business.

    ...But yeah, it's worst on the trailers. There's really nothing anchoring them. And in the event of a tornado, there's nowhere to go. I've had family living in trailers for years, and every time we had a storm move through we'd call them right after to make sure they made it through. Argh.

    By Blogger Meg, at 2:09 PM  

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