|by Bill Sievert|
|After a Stormy Road Trip, a Lesson about Class and Race
Back in my teen driving years, I remember handing a single dollar bill to a "service"-station attendant and in return, while I remained comfortably seated, receiving three gallons of fuel, a check of my engine oil and a complimentary windshield wipe-down. That memory came rushing back to me as John and I made the return leg of a hectic 28-hour roundtrip drive to Kentucky for the wedding of my younger niece, Shara.
We hadn't planned on making the long drive; we were supposed to fly to Louisville by way of Miami. But the insidious hurricane known as Katrina closed the Miami airport the morning of our scheduled departure, so we jumped into the car and raced north. It was important that we not experience a repeat of what had happened when my elder niece got married a few years ago. We were living in Rehoboth at the time, and a hurricane spiraling through Delmarva closed BWI Airport, forcing us to miss the rehearsal dinner. We made the next day's wedding with minutes to spare. Given the weather disasters that seem to arise anytime anyone in the Sievert family schedules a formal marriage ceremony, John and I have decided to abandon plans for our own wedding and simply elope. (All of our married friends can still send us presents, of course. It's about time we get even for all the wedding gifts we've given during the 32 years we've been together.)
Anyway, we made Shara's rehearsal dinner, and her wedding weekend was delightful. However, the trip home was rather frighteningand expensive. Katrina had smashed the Gulf Coast early that morning, and the storm was spawning heavy rain squalls and pop-up tornadoes all along our route. With every gust of wind, gas stations were raising their prices: $2.59 in Kentucky, $2.68 in Tennessee, $2.85 in the Atlanta area. By the time we reached the Florida line, our final fill-up cost us $3.09 a gallon.
"I never thought I'd live long enough to see three-dollar gas," I sighed to John, as I realized the cost of driving to the wedding had been as expensive as flying would have been had the airport been open.
"At least we drive a Bug," John said. "I hope prices go to $5 a gallon. It'll serve the fools right who keep buying gas-guzzling Hummers and topple-over SUVs."
I had little time to fret about our fuel bill. The moment we pulled into our driveway, even before unloading the car, I ran to the TV set to find out how the Gulf Coast was faring in Katrina's wake. Like most people, I knew that New Orleans was in a particularly precarious position geographically; I also was aware that years of federal-government neglect and failure to finance re-nourishment projects had allowed the natural wetlands and reefs that had once protected the city to disappear at a dramatic rate of 10 miles a year. The money that might have saved New Orleans was being diverted to Iraq, as were many of Louisiana's National Guard members.
Now, as the TV reports made clear that Monday evening, New Orleans was in the midst of an all-too-predictable disaster, one without precedent in this country. The scope of the disaster was obvious to anyone with a television, obvious to everyone except those federal officials who should have been most on top of the situation.
Like many of you, we kept watching and waiting for FEMA and the Red Cross and the White House to come to the rescue. We wept as we saw people begging for a small drink of water, or shelter for their children from the scorching summer sun. We were incredulous when, days later, we heard FEMA director Michael Brown say that he had no idea until mid-week that people were suffering in New Orleans' convention center. We were embarrassed by the elitist arrogance of Barbara Bush's comment that, because so many of the storm victims sheltered at the Houston Astrodrome were "underprivileged anyway, this is working very well for them." And we shook our heads to learn that Vice President Cheney had decided to finish his vacation, which included shopping for waterfront property in St. Michaels, Maryland, before returning to Washington to see what might need to be done.
Each day, it became increasingly clear that, as hideous a natural disaster as Katrina was, it was an even worse disaster of leadership, one that has plenty to say about our government's priorities, particularly in terms of race and social class. The Bush Administration's response was not at all akin to the almost instantaneous assistance it provided more affluent communities in Florida when they were hit by hurricanes last year. Of course, that was an election year in a hotly contested state where the victims were whiter and more likely to vote Republican.
Katrina is turning out, in more ways than one, to be a watershed event in American history. The accusations of racism and its enveloping cousin, classism, are mounting from angry Americans across the political spectrum. Yes, even many conservative talk-show commentators (like Joe Scarborough) are deeply incensed about the insensitivity and/or incompetence of the Bush administration.
In her anger and frustration, my sister in Kentucky sent an e-mail to an elderly, mild-mannered Catholic priest who has long counseled our family. My sister asked Father Jim, who in recent years has spent much of his time in Third-World countries doing missionary work with disadvantaged people, how he viewed the situation in New Orleans. Not unlike a rising chorus of radicalized Americans, Father Jim minced no words in his response. "The Bush people are doing demonic things, and hopefully they'll be impeached."
Father Jim attached a copy of an article by Manuel Valenzuela, a columnist for informationclearinghouse.info, which "expresses what I'm feeling to a tee."
This writer agrees with Valenzuela and Father Jim. It's time that we stop tiptoeing around the underlying issues of class and privilege and race, and face the truth about the manner in which our nation responds to humanitarian needs.
To quote Valenzuela: "What haunts us upon looking at a city such as New Orleans...is that more concern was given Bush's failed war in Iraq than an American city at the heart of black America. It shows us that had the levies and barriers been properly funded, and had Bush not diverted monies away for his little quagmire in Iraq, perhaps New Orleans would never had been flooded, saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars in costs...
"When thousands of blacks lie stranded for days on the roofs of their houses, when thousands more have to live days in the filth and decay of the Superdome and the Convention Center, when it takes four days for aid to finally arrive, when the U.S. government lets anarchy arrive and thrive in New Orleans, when Bush is more concerned about photo-ops than in helping people, when New Orleans, with mostly a black population, is allowed to descend into chaos, [singer] Kayne West's comments on national television that Bush does not care about black people seem appropriate...
"It is those born with silver spoons and porcelain dishes and gold-plated toilets that prefer living in denial rather than confronting the reality that is the other America....It is people like George Bush who, upon the calamity of New Orleans, when the utter devastation and levels of suffering could be seen by us all, prefer to engage in guitar lessons in San Diego or birthday-cake celebrations in Arizona or rounds of golf and fundraisers in California."
What has happened in New Orleans must never be allowed to happen again, and that means searching our souls until we are united in a commitment to elect leaders (of whatever party) who value the lives of all our citizens equally.
Bill Sievert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 13 September 16, 2005