Amidst the glum of the hurricanes shined a little humor. A lady, having declined to be transferred from the Houston Astrodome to a luxury cruise ship, explained her decision this way:
"No, sir, you ain’t getting me on no boat, not after I spent the last five days surrounded by water. I’ve seen all the water I want to. I like it fine right here, and here is where I’m going to stay."
I can sympathize with her. Cruise ships have no allure for me. Being cooped up on a ship with people I don’t know and might not like, with nothing to do but eat and drink, sounds like a recipe for a heart attack. On the other hand, sleeping on a cot with 15,000 other people has even less allure.
It’s going to be interesting as the rescuers get to know the rescued. Long before the storm, there were people in the Big Easy who were giving it a reputation for having mean streets and a lot of violence. Guess where they are. Low-life criminals are opportunists, if anything, so here comes the government offering three hots and a cot and a voucher worth two grand.
Now, don’t think I’m trying to smear the reputation of the evacuees, who are mainly decent people. I’m just adding a touch of realism to the euphoria surrounding the good deeds so many people are performing. Anytime you throw your net into the sea, you’re going to pull up a few fish you’d rather had stayed in the ocean.
Some will be perfectly content to let others take care of them for the rest of their lives. Some will have to be taken care of for the rest of their lives because they have reached the end of their productive years and are frail, old and sick. The notion that all of these people are going to be housed in temporary shelters for a month or two and then folded back into the mainstream economy will have hit-and-miss success, to say the least. Being the victim of a natural disaster doesn’t change people. If they were decent, hardworking folks before, they will be afterward. If they weren’t before, they won’t be afterward.
I would not like to see the goodness and love being offered to these people repaid with con games or worse.
Nothing like this has ever been done before in the United States. The last time an entire city had to be evacuated was when Gen. Sherman burned Atlanta, but Atlanta in those days was a village compared with New Orleans.
Places like Houston certainly cannot afford to keep their municipal facilities devoted to evacuees indefinitely. The population of Baton Rouge has doubled practically overnight. The impact of 1 million displaced people, the enormity of the reconstruction costs — well, we are going to witness the mother of all social undertakings, and it’s all just a hint of what would happen in the event of a nuclear war.
I’ve already heard the hope expressed that this will focus the attention of the government back on the American people. I share that hope. Foreign adventures are necessarily at the expense of the American people, in terms of both lives and treasure. Let’s hope we can do a better job rebuilding the central Gulf Coast than we have done rebuilding Iraq, and with a whole lot less violence, corruption and profiteering.
The generosity and the huge number of volunteers show that the American people are ready for the task. The question is, Is the government? Do politically favored corporations have to get no-bid, high-profit contracts before that interest develops?
Let us not forget that when the members of Congress appropriate money, it’s not their money they intend to spend; it’s the American people’s money, which has been earned with sweat and risk.
Jimmy Carter used to say that the American people deserve a government as good as they are. They do. They haven’t gotten it yet. Maybe that corner will finally be turned by the necessity of dealing with a calamity.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.