Helpless Americans

Following the hurricane Katrina catastrophe, I remember seeing a television interview of a woman who had lost her home to the storm. She was screaming, "Where is my FEMA home? I want my FEMA home right now!" I pondered a response for her that would have gone something like, "Why don't you just look up into the sky and you will soon see a huge helicopter bringing your home to you." No doubt, a cynic such as myself has no business interviewing the public. It took me a while to process my disgust for the lady who expected a FEMA home to be dropped at her feet.

As a child growing up in upstate New York, I recall a commercial for a cereal product called Maypo. It was a maple-flavored cereal that may have come from Canada. As I remember it, a TV commercial hawked the cereal where an over-indulged child is offered a breakfast but refuses it and cries out, "I want my Maypo!" He continues screaming for his Maypo until his mother gives it to him whereupon he calmly eats the product. The child was rewarded for having a fit and the mother was rewarded for giving in to him because it bought some peace in the home. I have no idea whether Maypo is still around, but that "I want!" behavior surely prevails.

Are Americans, by their birthright, entitled to a FEMA home? Are we to expect such items following catastrophic events? I thought this was a ridiculous notion and could not see where it came from until hurricane Wilma tore apart my own neighborhood in Miami just a short while ago. I have learned that there is a pervasive attitude that people have which essentially has bent their hands out of the survive-and-recover position and changed them into the gimme position. Gimme this, gimme that. I want this done for me because I'm an American and the government owes me everything I want.

Immediately following the end of Wilma's destructive winds, I was out of the house assessing what needed to be done to get a huge tree off our house. My wife would say it was maybe a bit too early when I went out as some gusts were still knocking things around (like my 240 pound body). But I just could not wait to get started on the recovery. Within minutes, my neighbor was by my side helping to turn the fallen tree into a debris pile. Within a few hours, the tree was history; our grandkids' swing set was reassembled, and some of the small trees I had planted over the years were righted and tied in a vertical position. I had our generator humming along keeping the essential appliances alive.

I am not claiming that I'm a super guy who has a need to rescue anyone or anything. I do think I came from and probably belong in a different era. I have a strong work ethic that was likely imprinted into my DNA and reinforced by my upbringing. When snowstorms hit our hometown, my friends took to the neighborhood with snow shovels and would clear walkways just for the exercise. School would be closed following the storms and since that was pre-video game, pre-computer times we wanted to do something to break the boredom. Funny how times have changed. While cutting up that big tree and stacking the pieces into a pile, a number of neighborhood boys walked past my wife who was helping with the cleanup, yet none offered to give any assistance. I was not expecting any offers of help but I could not have seen myself walking past a middle-aged woman and her gimpy husband without offering to pitch in and help. It is obvious I am living in the wrong century.

Later in the day, I did a bit of neighborhood assessment to see how bad things were for the rest of the community. It became evident that there are two kinds of people: The ones who get off their butts and do whatever they can for themselves and the others who expect someone to do it for them. Some streets were closed due to fallen trees and many streets were barely passable. I called out to one neighbor to ask if he wanted help clearing part of a tree that was obstructing traffic. He answered that the tree in the street was the county's problem and to leave it alone. Yeah, it was the county's problem but the county's cleanup folks were likely a tad busy at the moment.

The following day I read articles in our newspaper detailing the damage Wilma had wrought upon our region. And wouldn't you just know it? There was the Maypo attitude again! People were quoted asking when FEMA might be expected to provide housing, money, food, transportation; you name it. I began to think I had missed the memo declaring that all Americans were authorized to become a bunch of helpless nincompoops. The cries of "I want, I want, I want!" became louder than the noise of the chainsaws and generators.

Alas! I have found part of the reason for the helpless behavior. We are now told that among other things, FEMA will reimburse victims of the hurricane for the purchase of generators and chainsaws. Well, that was a bit unexpected. So I looked into the requirements for reimbursement. I decided that my taxes have been supporting this boondoggle of a government long enough to deserve a generator and a chainsaw myself! Had I not had a saw to get that tree off my house I would have had to hire it done and my insurance or my Uncle (Sam) would have been hit for a bill way more than the price of a saw. And the generator I had running was keeping a few hundred bucks' worth of refrigerated and frozen food from spoiling (not to mention keeping a chill on another hurricane readiness item: a few beers). Then the stinky stuff hit the fan. FEMA will only reimburse for items purchased after the state was declared a disaster. If you purchased it before the storm, you were making a preparedness investment and FEMA does not want to encourage preparedness! Yeah, makes perfect sense. Our government is encouraging helplessness and thumb-sucking behavior of the citizens. If you prepare before the storm you get financially punished. If you let the storm hit and then cry "Help! Help! The sky has fallen!" Uncle FEMA will run to your aid. I wonder if FEMA has any Maypo.

November 12, 2005