"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