tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Katrina exposes meaning of poverty

The last few days have had a kind of 9-11 feel to them. Like the rest of the nation, I am digesting the destruction of a major national treasure and a massive loss of life. There is the chaos that follows, along with the obligatory finger-pointing. And there is a rise in gas prices. Just like in the days that followed the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there is an uncertainty in the air. We are still trying to figure out the extent of the disaster, what it means for our future, and what it means specifically to me.

I had some time to think about all this on Thursday and Friday, the first and second of September. Katrina, the hurricane that caused all the trouble, hit Florida one week earlier. The weekend of August 27 and 28 the hurricane grew in strength while hovering over the Gulf of Mexico. August 29, it hit Louisiana and Alabama. By late Monday, however, many people were breathing a sigh of relief. The hit wasn’t as bad as people expected. New Orleans seemed to escape the worst.

But the worst was yet to come. On Tuesday the city filled with water that spilled through a breach in one of the levees that protects it from the sea, which is actually a few feet higher than most of New Orleans. On Wednesday, 80 percent of the city was under water and we saw images on television of the devastation. People said there were dead bodies floating everywhere. People were still trapped in their homes. There was looting in the streets.

I had a meeting in Lake Delton, Wisconsin, which is 220 miles from Minneapolis. The drive gave me three-and-a-half hours to think about what was going on. I thought about Jackson Square, the famous gathering place in the French Quarter where I had visited several times on business trips. What a magnificent place, with the old Cathedral, the CafĂ© Du Monde, the lace shops, and the street musicians. I have always wanted to bring my wife and kids there. Now I don’t know if I will ever get the chance.

All those European-style buildings, and Preservation Hall, -- what would happen to them? The convention center, where I had been to so many trade shows, looked like a war zone. In recent years, they had actually done quite a bit to make the city more attractive. For example, they added a light rail system that could take visitors from the downtown, convention center area to within walking distance of the French Quarter, a trip I took the last time I was there.

I stopped in Menomonie, Wis., to fill my car with gas, and groaned when I saw the price at the two gas stations along the interstate: $3.25 a gallon. In Minneapolis, gas had jumped the day before to the $3 mark after spending most of the last month between $2.50 and $2.65 per gallon. When I got to Lake Delton, around noon, I noticed the gas stations near my hotel were selling gas for $2.99 per gallon. Darn, I should have waited until I got here to fill up. But four hours later, when I returned to my car after the meeting around dinner time, the price was $3.29 per gallon. The gas situation always seems to go crazy when there is a national disaster. The night the Twin Towers came down, I remember driving around my neighborhood and seeing lines that extended 10 cars or more at gas stations.

That night in my hotel room, I got a good opportunity to watch the news. I saw the desperate faces of the victims. I saw video of a dead person in a wheel chair at the convention center; another video showed a dead person floating in the water. There were angry people begging for help. The mayor of New Orleans was desperate and the governor of Louisiana looked like she had been through a war.

Although I am the lucky one – I haven’t lost my home or worse – I still end up thinking about myself. Could this happen to me? I wonder. Is Minneapolis prepared to handle a disaster on this scale? Would we fare any better in a similar situation? It is not like the hurricane came out of nowhere. Everyone knew it was coming. People had two days to evacuate. If the people of Minneapolis knew a disaster was coming in two days, would everyone leave? Would the city or the state have the means to transport all the people who couldn’t evacuate on their own? I don’t know but I hope our local officials are watching and taking notes.

And will they rebuild? That is a big question. Does it make sense to put houses on land that is lower than the nearby water? In St. Paul, they used to build houses on the river flats; that is where the immigrants and other poor folks lived. Every spring those houses would get flooded out. In the 1960s, they stopped building houses there. Today, the entire area is cleared out and there are no houses. I am not sure where the immigrants and poor folks are living now.

As I watched on television all the sick and bedridden people who were brought to the terminal at Louis Armstrong Airport, I wondered about their families. Are their families in safe places? Did some people evacuate, only to leave grandma in the nursing home? You get the sense that some people must have done that. Of course, there are people who literally have no one. They could do nothing but rely on the government. But what about these families that actually let grandpa fend for himself while they took off to higher ground? This is a disaster that CNN didn’t cover, the breakdown in the family.

All these victims, all these people in the Superdome and at the convention center, these are the city’s poor. These weren’t wealthy or even middle class people left behind. These were the folks who have nothing. That means they don’t have much money, and more importantly it means they don’t have family who care about them. You really need both in this world. You need a little money so you can get out of town on two-day’s notice if you have to, and you need family – either so they can save you if you can’t save yourself, or so you can save them.

The people who could have left but chose not to -- it isn’t as easy to feel sorry for them, although I do. The people who could not leave, those are the folks I feel bad for. I wonder where their kids were, or their siblings. Even if they didn’t have any, how does someone go through life with no one? How does someone get through life without anyone to care for, and for them to care back?

So what Katrina is showing us is the plight of poverty. We can blame the government for not acting quicker, for not doing more, but I suspect the various government agencies probably did as well as they could. The fact of the matter is, government is not family. It can only do so much. Government treated these folks the way it always does, the only way it can – it crosses its fingers and hopes everyone will be okay. That is what happened during previous hurricanes. Every day, the government hopes it won’t hear from its poor; it hopes the poor won’t demand too much. But it was different in New Orleans this time. Katrina made it clear that the poor are not okay. This time, the government had to intervene. Although it was a little late for some, the government response to Katrina was about what it is in any situation – a little less than what desperate people want.

It sucks to be poor; that becomes really obvious during a disaster. Education, training and jobs are the antidote to a lack of money, but the lack of a family network is something the government really can’t do anything about. Nobody can force people to love one another. But that is what we have to do. We especially have to love our own blood and heritage. We cannot alienate our family members, not even one, not even the one who is the biggest pain in the neck. Society cannot function without strong families; it cannot function when the only level of social cohesion is government. We are seeing that it New Orleans.

I just read that the French Quarter is probably going to be okay. Apparently, it is built on higher ground than much of the rest of the city. Maybe I will get to go back to Jackson Square. Maybe I will hear the music there again. And maybe I will get to share this special place with my wife and kids.

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