Stupid, Stupid Poor

I want an administration that won’t hire a jackass to run FEMA:

(CNN) — The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Thursday those New Orleans residents who chose not to heed warnings to evacuate before Hurricane Katrina bear some responsibility for their fates.

Michael Brown also agreed with other public officials that the death toll in the city could reach into the thousands.

“Unfortunately, that’s going to be attributable a lot to people who did not heed the advance warnings,” Brown told CNN.

“I don’t make judgments about why people chose not to leave but, you know, there was a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans,” he said…

Michael Brown, meet Cherie Priest:

New Orleans and Biloxi are not rich cities. They are poor southern cities disproportionately filled with poor southern people — people who may not have reliable transportation, people who live hand-to-mouth, people who have nowhere else to go, even if they had the means to get there.

And the evacuation was little more than a vague order to get the hell out — under your own power and at your own expense. If you have, at your immediate disposal, reliable transportation, money for gas, and either distant family OR money for shelter, then this isn’t a big deal. Of course you leave. You pack up everything you can and you head for higher ground. But it is somewhat less easy to do if you are lacking any one of these things, AND you have been informed that what little earthly lot you may claim is about to be destroyed. Do you hang on and try to save what you can? Do you let it go and return to less than nothing?…

If every single person in New Orleans had a spare $300 and a car, most of them could have run. Now turn on the TV again and look at how many stayed.

This afternoon I had a conversation with a friend of mine in California who wondered why the hell so many people stayed in New Orleans after the evacuation order, and implicit in this was the idea that if you stay when you’re told to go, you shouldn’t be surprised when you end up dead. I pointed out that a lot of the people who stayed were poor, a lot of them didn’t have cars or anywhere to go, and neither the city nor the state was lining up transportation to take them out of the city. Greyhound had rather notoriously closed shop on Saturday, so even if they wanted to get out and had the money for a bus ticket, surprise! Most people who stayed didn’t stay for the lark of being able to say they weathered the storm. They stayed because they really didn’t have much other choice.

Does the director of FEMA honestly think that most of the people who stayed whould have chosen to stay had they better options? If one is unable to leave, by whatever combination of poverty, age or infirmity applies, and the government isn’t there to help you leave, how much responsibility should that person bear for being in the path of a goddamned hurricane? And what the holy living crap is the director of FEMA doing, wagging his finger at these people? It’s not like FEMA was in a rush to move its ass anywhere, either. I knew two days before Katrina hit where that storm was going: a little government department called NOAA told me. Seems to me FEMA might have been able to get the memo too. And, you know, maybe packed some snacks and a couple cases of bottled water. Just in case someone needed them five days ago.

Oh, but, don’t think Director Brown is blaming anyone:

Asked later on CNN how he could blame the victims, many of whom could not flee the storm because they had no transportation or were too frail to evacuate on their own, Brown said he was not blaming anyone.

“Now is not the time to be blaming,” Brown said. “Now is the time to recognize that whether they chose to evacuate or chose not to evacuate, we have to help them.”

We don’t blame them. It’s just that they need to share some responsibility. They should have figured that being poor and carless was a bad move from the start. But what the hell, we’ll help them anyway.

Here’s a passage for you from a New Orleans Times-Picayune story, about a woman from New Orleans’ 9th Ward, which I am led to understand is one of the poorest in the city:

Lucrece Phillips’ sleepless nights are filled with the images of dead babies and women, and young and old men with tattered T-shirts or graying temples, all of whom she saw floating along the streets of the Lower 9th Ward.

The deaths of many of her neighbors who chose to brave the hurricane from behind the walls of their Painter Street homes shook tears from Phillips’ bloodshot eyes Tuesday, as a harrowing tale of death and survival tumbled from her lips.

“The rescuers in the boats that picked us up had to push the bodies back with sticks,” Phillips said sobbing. “And there was this little baby. She looked so perfect and so beautiful. I just wanted to scoop her up and breathe life back into her little lungs. She wasn’t bloated or anything, just perfect.”

I don’t want to blame that baby. But she bears some responsibility.

40 Comments on “Stupid, Stupid Poor”

  1. I actually saw that Michael Brown interview live on CNN, and if there’s going to be ANY scapegoat for the complete failure of this administration to handle this crisis adequately, he clinched the nomination right there.

  2. Thanks for posting that. I’ll repeat here what I said in my own commentary on Cherie Priest’s beautiful statement:

    I think it is also easier for us outside observers to think everyone was being obstinate and not leaving, rather than imagining that we live in a society that made no provisions for the sick, elderly and poor to evacuate. The more I see pictures of those left behind, the more I feel like this is stunning example of how we like ignore everything outside the middle and upper classes unless it’s forced in our faces.

    Also, FEMA clearly seems to have forgotten what the “M” stands for, as all I can can glean from photos and blogs is chaos in NOLA, no management at all. The only other memorable case of looting like this after a natural disater was in St. Croix where they faced a similar breakdown of support services and couldn’t get supplies in.

    Arg, I’m starting to rant again…

  3. The regional, state, and federal governments knew days in advance this would happen. They must have realized the poor of New Orleans would end up in this situation. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone high up — e.g. in FEMA — did a cost-benefit analysis and figured it would be cheaper this way.

    In any case, it’s damned hard not to come to the conclusion that the government does not care whether the poor live or die.

  4. greentherapy – A 40ish woman dealing with new disabilities. After treatment for breast cancer found myself with too much time on my hands and a lot of property that needed work. I'm an amateur at the gardening thing and would like to share my steps in learning with everyone.
    Bonnie

    My son was trapped in Florida last year when Hurricane Jeanne came through. He was a teenage boy visiting relatives. By the time my family was told that an evacuation order had been put out it was too late for them to leave the city they were in. There are only a limited amount of roads to leave these areas from. You sit in your car for hours. Gas runs out. The storm comes in and it becomes safer to stay in the home instead of the car. There was no way in the world I wanted my son to be trapped during the storm, but you just can’t go to the local military base and ask for transportation out of the city. STOP BLAMING these victims FEMA. The blame is on your shoulders fully.

  5. You people sound so high and mighty, but I would point out that the director of FEMA is a former estate planning attorney from Colorado who was legal counsel for the International Arabian Horse Association. Those are disaster management credentials you just can’t argue with. Let’s leave this one to the professionals, ‘kay?

  6. I’ve often been one who, after a major disaster, sat around and wondered “why the hell didn’t they just leave.” This attitute is often helped by the news reporters, who just love those “Well, this is my city, and I’m just going to stick it out,” type quotes.

    However, when the evacuation rate is 80%, everybody who could leave, did. Especially when the poverty rate in that area of the city is better than 30%. “Mandatory Evacuation” is no use to people without transportation.

    New Orleans is a dirt-poor city – one of the reasons why I had to move away. And this disaster has been a long time coming. Every hurricane season, the news always re-reported that I-10 West, one of the two major evacuation routes, is at one point 10 feet below sea level, and floods every hurricane. There was a pumping station there, but it just couldn’t keep up. It would have taken six years to fix, because they would have to raised the road over another bridge, but did they even get it started? No. “Yes, it’s a shame, but the city just doesn’t have the money.” Saving New Orleans was just not a “priority” for the state or federal governments. Dammit.

    K

  7. Well said. The more I see, read, or hear the angrier I get. Why could they have not gotten something started? They knew for days that Katrina was going to hit. Why is it they can mobile and go to war in 24 hours but cannot find time to secure 1 drop of water when disaster is going to strick our shores? Our government leaves a lot to be desired!

  8. John, I figured with you being a good student of Heinlein, you would have a more Libertarian viewpoint. What would have Heinlein have said? Probably a lot worse then what Michael Brown said. The Libertarian point of view would be something like “Mandatory evacuation. You have the freewill to stay, but in doing so you void our responsibility to save you afterwards”. That is of course you do provide them with the ability to leave before hand, or at least bring them to one of the shelters. Seems as though I do remember video of people turning down rides to the shelters, and opt instead to wait it out in their homes.

  9. I agree with what you’ve said, John. Those with money can’t understand that $300 might as well be a million if you don’t have it.

    This is probably a stupid question, but I’ve seen it brough up in other forums — what about walking? I know it’s not entirely reasonable, but I am curious as to what walking out of the city could’ve done for those who didn’t have the means to drive.

    And apparently now someone is suggesting that martial law be declared so that American troops can occupy their own cities to try and keep the peace during a mess of our government’s own making.

    Way to be proactive, guys.

  10. Walking? Are you serious? Have you ever been to New Orleans in August? Walking is a much greater certainty of death then a blustery wind. Heat Stroke would have taken nearly 1/4 of everyone that tried to walk away…you can’t carry enough fresh water to make the trek to the nearest safe town.

    At any rate, those unable to depart where naught but dependent rubish, they would have died once the system they were milking for support failed. Like parasites without a host, those who are unable or unwilling to be responsible for themselves simply cannot exist without that supple nipple of social services firmly planted between their pot-stained lips. I say good riddance to the lot of them. The storm saved that bloated baby a future of system dependency…that’s mercy not tragedy.

  11. Last night I spoke to my mother, who had finally heard from some of our cousins down there. One set was a mother and daughter–both over 60, with the daughter in poor health. They had decided to stay in Biloxi because traffic out was so bad, and it was only possible to travel east, not north. They made it through the storm, and were able to get out afterwards. The story for the New Orleans relatives was similar–a married couple, both over 70, who managed to drive out before the flooding prevented this, but who elected to stay through the hurricane, because driving out between the traffic and everything else was so difficult.

    In neither case was money an issue–but age and health were factors. Driving in those conditions is well past the worst rush-hour traffic you can think of, and into the “this should be one of the torments of hell” level. I don’t think it was wise for them to have stayed–but I can see why they did, and in their shoes I might have been just as unwise.

    Here’s another factor–how many of us have been in the spot where, the weekend before payday, our budgets were pretty tight? We weren’t suffering–there was food in the house, enough gas in the car to get to work and back, and the bills were paid, but if we had need a chunk of cash in hand, we’d have been out of luck?

    And another point–this was a weekend. How many banks were open? How long did the cash supply in the ATMs hold out? How many businesses were willing to cash people’s checks? If you can’t get your hands on it, money in the bank isn’t the same as money in your hand.

    Finally, for those who’ve never been in New Orleans, or only travelled there by plane or trains, getting in and out is not easy. Look at this map, and consider the challenges.

  12. Walking (to where?) would not have gotten them very far out of the hurricane.

    And given that people with resources had trouble getting out, I think perhaps the director of FEMA ought to shut his yap about people who didn’t have money and cars and the ability to drop everything and go stay somewhere else free.

  13. I’ve heard those comments, and others like ‘Why did those people live in a city that was below sea level’?

    I’m getting heartily sick of the Randian/Libertarian viewpoint, that of ‘I’ve got mine, so fuck all of you.’ That viewpoint has seeped into damn near everything, prompting a certain class of people to ask why they should pay school taxes when they’re childless, why they should be responsible for policing costs when their neighborhoods are relatively peaceful, and why they should pay for FEMA when people choose to live in hurricane country.

    Could somebody ask Mr. Brown how all those elderly people (mostly black and poor beyond what most of us have experienced) were supposed to do anything about their own situation? What responsibility should they bear, Mr. Brown?

  14. Don Demask said:

    “Seems as though I do remember video of people turning down rides to the shelters, and opt instead to wait it out in their homes.”

    I’m sure there were some people who could have left but didn’t. I don’t expect it was a very large percentage overall.

    I feel actually very libertarian about people who actually and affirmatively choose to ride out something like a hurricane. If you can get out but you don’t, you cease being someone else’s problem. But I don’t suspect this was the case with the majority of the people here.

  15. Why, Dean, being poor and elderly (without rich, devoted relatives) is clearly a sign that one was not sufficiently competent and morally worthy to be among the Elect. Er, I mean, to improve one’s station in life and.

  16. Not to mention the disabled, the people physically unable to travel, the fact that (as I read) there aren’t too many ways out of that city…

    And some people simply don’t think things will be as bad as the warnings say. I remember a hurricane up here on Long Island in an almost coastal town in the ’70s when we were told to evacuate to a town north of us which was higher ground because they feared a tidal wave. We opted to stick it out, hopeful our house would be fine. The tidal wave never materialized and we got just a lot of rain. We lost electricity, but were otherwise fine. Sometimes, the warnings just sound like someone crying wolf.

  17. I’m sorry, but it’s the quotes and pictures of the babies that are slaying me whenever I see them. Maybe it’s overly sentimental, but I have a three and a half month old daughter right now, so those go right to the heart.

  18. Personally, I think that the percentage of folks that stuck it out because they didn’t have any other option (money or health) is a lot lower than we tend to want to believe. I mean Fats Domino had to stick it out. He had opportunity, but chose not to use it. And at the cost of risking other people’s lives to save him after the fact (not to mention wasting resources that should be going to save the city and the folks that didn’t have the opportunity to leave). There needs to be some sort of retribuation paid by all the folks that decided to stick it out and given to all the folks that wanted to leave and couldn’t.

  19. I went to college in New Orleans. I’ve never been poor myself, living in New Orleans provided some perspective.

    Growing up in Boston, I knew that us white suburban kids just shouldn’t take the Orange Line to some parts of town at night. In New Orleans, there were large swaths of the city where you didn’t want to go even during the day. Okay, it was safe (I think) to ride a bus through those parts of town, but that was about it.

    A fellow I worked with in college was shot dead in an attempted robbery outside a bar one night before my senior year. I had other friends who knew people who had been killed – sometimes in broad daylight, not far from the university – as well.

    When I lived there, there was one – count ’em, one – street I ever saw which looked like it had been paved in recent memory (it was the street outside a hospital, which reportedly paid for the pavement itself). On the other hand, I saw plenty of streets with potholes as big as my car. The city is built on a swamp, but it had effectively no money for basic infrastructure like maintaining the roads. (Biking around town was a lot of fun, let me tell you. Especially the rampant broken glass.)

    I would wager that anyone who has never been to New Orleans – especially outside of Mardi Gras season – just doesn’t understand what a different city it is (was?) from others in the country. I’ve always referred to it as a “dying city”, because, really, it was dying a slow death. It’s not Boston, or Memphis, or Chicago, or Madison, or Minneapolis, or San Francisco, or San Jose, or Portland OR (to name cities I’ve spent at least a little time in). It’s a profoundly strange place.

    People have piled on a few politicians for wondering whether it should be rebuilt. I question whether it can be rebuilt. It probably can, but I don’t think it’s a gimme.

  20. Personally, I think that the percentage of folks that stuck it out because they didn’t have any other option (money or health) is a lot lower than we tend to want to believe. I mean Fats Domino had to stick it out.

    I’ve heard statisticians lament that opinions based on small sample sizes are the root of all stupidity, and this astonishing comment makes me see exactly what they mean. The city was 80% evacuated, and 30% of the population lives at or below the poverty line. That’s what I’m basing my thinking on, not what I “want to believe.”

    And your opinion is based on . . . Fats Domino? Whatever keeps you comfortable.

  21. Michael Rawdon,
    I’ve been fighting against using the past tense for New Orleans all week. Sure, it’s been dying a slow death, but it’s been dying a slow death for 300 years. Things are bad, but it’ll take more than a wall of water to wipe it off the map.

    Nagin needs to strike while the iron is hot here, and get billions of dollars from the federal government dedicated for infrastructure reconstruction. Get I-10 and the main roads rebuilt, this time with planning, instead of the haphazard way they were built in the past. Get modern streetcars and busses. Get updated sewage and water lines, fix the levees all around the city, and put pumping stations where they’re needed. And then focus on getting industry and business to the city, so that it can flourish, instead of having to sustain itself on tourism and the (admittedly important) port.

    Nagin needs to take the opportunity to make the city worth living in again.

    K

  22. The heat comment was something I hadn’t thought of. You’re right that it would be pretty ridiculous to attempt, even for a family that was healthy.

    My mother made the comment this evening when we were talking that Michael Brown is probably running on very little sleep and is probably a little in shock. My answer was that if this is true, he shouldn’t be giving statements to the press unless he can form coherent sentences.

  23. FEMA: the F is for Feeble

    Wonkette has posted a transcript of the mayor of New Orleans getting very feisty indeed on the subject of how totally fucking lame the government has been at taking care of things post-Katrina. Of course, they did so well beforehand….

  24. There needs to be some sort of retribuation paid by all the folks that decided to stick it out and given to all the folks that wanted to leave and couldn’t.

    You don’t “pay” retribution. I think you meant to say restitution, and in any case, it’s a risible idea. What are you going to do–brain-scan to detect the virtuous who couldn’t leave from the dastardly who could? (Apparently this latter group consists of masochists who love the thrill of being in the path of a hurricane and having everything they own destroyed.)

    Disasters are so like kicking over a rock. All the ugly, crawly things you normally wouldn’t see come sliming out.

  25. I know I’m late to the party, but I had to chip in this link:

    http://www.cityofno.com/SystemModules/PrintPage.aspx?portal=46&tabid=4

    It is a lovely document entitled:
    City Of New Orleans Emergency Preparedness : Emergency Guide for Citizens with Disabilities

    I found it while searching for information on what preparations might have been made to evacuate those who could not evacuate themselves.


    If you need to evacuate, you should first contact your support system and seek shelter with relatives, friends, community organizations or in hotels/motels.

    Yep. The main plan for evacuating people with disabilities was “call a friend and ask them to take you.”

    There is mention of the ability to apply for an Emergency Evacuation Assistance Program, but no mention of what it entails – it seems to indicate that you might be able to apply to be put on a list to get a ride to a shelter. The shelters, by the way, are clearly stated as providing no medical care or personal care assistance. Which is code for “you’ll get to sit in your own filth and be responsible for fighting other evacuees for what little food and water is available.”

  26. “Adolph”: Are you trying to be ironic or just an ass? I believe you have accomplished both simultaneously. congratulations

  27. My father, who works–maybe that should be past tense–as a pediatrician at the various New Orleans hospitals and out of his family practice office on Robert E. Lee, brought up another point:

    Not only does the national media love the “hell if *I’m* gonna leave” soundbites, but also they probably heard more of it than was accurate. If you’re too poor or too frail to leave, you feel pretty fricken’ helpless. You might be tempted to give a speech overflowing with bravado about how you’d rather die than leave simply because you’d rather sound stubborn than helpless.

    Another reason: If you have the means to leave, but you’re just that poor, it may in fact seem a fate worse than death to leave. The hurricane may take away what little you did have; what the hurricane misses, your equally desperate neighbors may take. Better stick around and protect your few possessions than lose everything.

    I bring up my Dad’s work because he works with the poor of New Orleans on a regular basis. He’s probably heard some of these mindsets first hand.

  28. My father, who works–maybe that should be past tense–as a pediatrician at the various New Orleans hospitals and out of his family practice office on Robert E. Lee, brought up another point:

    Not only does the national media love the “hell if *I’m* gonna leave” soundbites, but also they probably heard more of it than was accurate. If you’re too poor or too frail to leave, you feel pretty fricken’ helpless. You might be tempted to give a speech overflowing with bravado about how you’d rather die than leave simply because you’d rather sound stubborn than helpless.

    Another reason: If you have the means to leave, but you’re just that poor, it may in fact seem a fate worse than death to leave. The hurricane may take away what little you did have; what the hurricane misses, your equally desperate neighbors may take. Better stick around and protect your few possessions than lose everything.

    I bring up my Dad’s work because he works with the poor of New Orleans on a regular basis. He’s probably heard some of these mindsets first hand.

  29. Thanks for the great post…what’s really disheartening now is what I read in the paper this morning–that 46 percent of people polled (can’t remember the poll) felt the government was doing a fine job of handling the aftermath…WHAT??? This Brown has blood on his horse czar hands…where is the humanity…his heart? I am so glad I am not cut from his cloth.

  30. You know, there were people that actually stayed in New Orleans for the sole purpose of looting after the hurricane passed. Though I don’t really see the point in that, are they planning to sell the stuff? Keep it? If they were taking food, clothing, drugs, things like that I could understand it, but at this point the city is not going to have power for weeks, what are they planning to do with a TV, DVD player, XBox?

    You also have to take into account people at hospitals, patients and doctors, the police department, officers weren’t supposed to leave if they could help it.

    Personally, I think that the world in general is doing a better job of responding to this tragedy than the US itself is doing. Even Sri Lanka, which is still recovering from the tsunami, has offered to send aid. Charities all over the globe are sending people, money and supplies to the Gulf Coast. Maybe Katrina isn’t exactly bringing out the best in the US, but it’s interesting to see what other countries care enough about innocent people to send aid.

  31. So when the next Tornado is coming near a city in Kansas, the president who has other things to do and 49 other states to worry about, should stop everything and send troops in to evacuate all the poor people that have no friends or family anywhere to give them a ride.The people should not have any plan of thier own, just sit around and depend on the goverment, just like they had been before the disaster. Man personal responsibility means nothing anymore, all you hear is,I deservre help because I choose not to better myself with school or churchs that can help me to be independant of goverment. Nope can’t have that.

    Whatever

  32. Leaving aside the fact that a tornado is probably one millionth the size and power of a category four hurricane, and that hurricanes, unlike tornados, can be tracked and predicted over a series of days, thereby exposing your example to be impossibly stupid and you as something of an ignorant ass — yes, in the absence of local or state governments performing the task, I would be quite happy to have the federal government step in and help evacuate tens of thousands of people who might not otherwise be able to escape the path of a hurricane, thereby avoiding, say, the possibility of 10,000+ fatalities later on. Seems like if a government is going to be good for something, it should be helping keep its citizens alive. Even the poor ones.

    But clearly you would prefer they all just die. How nice for you. These days, that makes you a marvelous candidate to head FEMA.

  33. There are bound to be failures in cultures(‘poor’ South)that do little to take reasonable care of themselves. The ‘po folks’ I see on TV are multigenerational loosers whose life plan is to whine and beg from strangers. No clue about self responsibility. Who cares why, either you take care of yourself or you don’t.

  34. Golly, Rob. It’s amazing how much you can tell about someone and their entire life story from seeing their picture for two seconds on the television. That’s just a totally awesome psychic power! I wish I had it.

    My psychic power is being able to tell what someone is like just by reading the messages they leave about others on someone else’s blog.

  35. I CRIED WHILE READING BEING POOR IN THE SUNDAY PAPER.IT BROUGHT BACK SO MANY MEMORIES OF MY STRUGGLE GROWING UP AFTER MY FATHER DIED AND LEFT MY MOTHER AT AGE 38 A WIDOW.I WAS FIVE YEARS OLD.THERE ARE FOUR OF US GIRLS AND MY MOTHER RECENTLY PASSED AWAY AT AGE 100! SHE OFTEN SAID I AM LIVING PROOF–HARD WORK NEVER HURT ANYONE. I CAN REMEMBER HER WORKING IN THE FIELDS DURING DAY AND SEWING AT NIGHT –OUR CLOTHES.CANNING EVERYTHING SHE COULD GET HER HANDS ON FOR HER CHILDREN.MAYBE WE WERE POOR COMPARED TO SOME BUT WE WERE SO RICH IN OUR MOTHERS LOVE. HOW I LOVE HER AND MISS HER. WE WERE POOR IN MATERIAL THINGS PERHAPS BUT RICH IN LOVE. THAT IS WHAT MATTERS–MEMEORIES OF HER LOVE FOR HER CHILDREN.

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