'I Hate the Federal Government'

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"I
hate the federal government," were the first words my father
uttered. After two days, he finally got through to us on his cell
phone. He, like the rest of my family, lives in Petal, a small city
outside of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Official reports of Hurricane
Katrina's path on August 29th are still sketchy, but
it appears the eye of the storm either went just to the west of
Petal, or right through it. Regardless, the Petal police chief was
quoted the following day as saying, "Petal is destroyed."

Like
many who have family in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, we
sought every possible outlet for information. Today, four days after
the storm, there is still no power, no land-line communication,
and no food. The local newspaper updates its website regularly,
and a sister newspaper in Florida provided a web
forum
where hundreds of people shared their knowledge and pleaded
for information about their loved ones. Each piece of news brought
something worse than the previous report: people trapped in houses,
the elderly unable to get medical supplies, looting, and, of course,
the damage. In my parent's subdivision, a fairly well-to-do area
of town, every other house has a tree on top of it. Food is running
low, and tempers are flaring.

Many
readers may already have heard of Hattiesburg and the storm. It
was there Monday night that two siblings quarreled over a bag of
ice. One went to jail, the other went to the morgue. We are all
struck by the collapse of civilization in New Orleans. When we see
starving and mistreated crowds break into stores to get food, I
am sure people have pity. But when you see law and order break down
in your hometown – when people you know are threatened or even
murdered
– pity turns to horror, and we are forced to come to terms
with just how fragile civilization can be.

So,
why is it that in the face of such destruction, my father would
utter such a libertarian statement? Perhaps it was my brother, who
lost his house in the storm, but who also got a check from State
Farm Insurance the next day. Perhaps it was the Southern Baptist
Association, which was in town within 48 hours handing out rations
of food. Or, perhaps it was the fact that on Thursday, he still
had not seen a single FEMA worker. To make matters worse, relief
supplies were
stranded in truck stops
dozens of miles away, not because the
roads were covered with trees (which did make a difference during
the first 24 hours), but because government workers failed to tell
drivers where to deliver them. In one case, trucks of ice sat in
Meridian, Mississippi for three days because drivers could not find
officials who would tell them what to do. I bet the good folks at
State Farm could give them the right information. To make matters
worse, police in Mississippi, careful to avoid the human catastrophe
developing in New Orleans, continue to vigorously enforce a dusk-to-dawn
curfew. When generators finally arrive to power the pumps, gas stations
are shut down with the setting of the sun. In one case, motorists,
many of whom had lined up hours or even days before, were turned
away by aggressive
policemen wanting to get a head start
on enforcing the curfew.

We
have no way of knowing what the political repercussions of Katrina
will be. But rest assured, South Mississippians will think long
and hard before the next election, that is, if they even bother
to vote. To paraphrase one of my favorite theologians, faith in
humanity can lead to disillusionment with humanity, which will assuredly
lead to hatred of humanity. I think the same applies to the federal
government.

September
3, 2005

Carey
Michael Roberts [send him
mail
] teaches history at Arkansas Tech University.

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