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Friday, September 02, 2005

Hand wringing won't help much.....

In the past 48 hours we've been treated to a spectacle of hand-wringing and misery, politicized to the point of being ridiculous. I've been watching the response of the communities that have been accepting refugees. Churches, private citizens, human service agencies and disaster relief services have been mobilizing as rapidly as possible. Here, where we're untouched by the horrific damage wreaked by Katrina, we have only to announce on the radio to "Bring money here!" and a pile of money is created by caring citizens. A shelter needs supplies and within the hour, they're saying, "Slow down, we can't take it all."

So why are people dying in New Orleans? Unless you've been to the site of a huge natural disaster, there is no way to appreciate how hard it is to mobilize relief. First of all there's the problem of distance. You have to collect supplies, plan travel, gather up vehicles and personnel. This can take a lot of time to do. Inevitably in a widespread disaster which affects tens of thousands of square miles, travel, services and order breaks down pretty rapidly. Relief workers and local cops are understandably reluctant to move into areas where roving bands of shooters are popping away at anything that rolls of flies. So we wait for the military to move in.

The military takes time to gather up equipment, pull together transport, clear the roads and airways and get to where they are going. The logistical problem is incredible, but the last thing you want to do is send in troops without enough equipment, food, supplies and ammunition unless your purpose is to get them killed. Even then, the military's first priority has been to use its rapid deployment troops in rescue efforts first. Yes there are bodies piling up, but the rescue guys have to decide between burying the dead and saving those who are still alive and clinging to trees and rooftops. It's not an easy decision, but an obvious one. Meanwhile, the newsies are filming the piles of bodies and wondering where the military is. I can tell you. They're hanging out of the doors of military helicopters dragging people off of rooftops.

There are two kinds of reactions to all of this that I see out there. One group stands beside the highway, usually in front of a camera and screams, "When is somebody going to do something about all of this?"

The other response is to pick up tools and go to work trying to help people. In this kind of massive disaster, we find out what kind of communities we live in. I hope that if something like this happened here in East Texas, that instead of asking "Who's in charge?" we'd find our own leadership standing right among us. I would hope we'd look around to see how we could help someone else. If the bodies were piling up, I would hope some of us would take pity on them and do what we could to place them someplace safe where their loved ones could find them. I know people are doing that in New Orleans. People who have lost everything are dragging out their fishing boats and rescueing their neighbors from flooded neighborhoods. Some cops in New Orleans didn't turn in their badges and didn't barricade themselves in their police stations. Some churches have thrown open their doors and sheltered the homeless as best they could. Schools have sent their buses, Truck drivers have risked being mobbed to bring donated supplies to anxious survivors.

Is relief happening as fast as we like? No, of course not. Is somebody to blame? Probably, but not necessarily the ones who will get excoriated in the media in the next few weeks for doing the best they could. Ultimately, the same people that are screaming "What are you going to do for me?" should have been reinforcing the levees they knew would not hold. The mayor who knew the deficiencies of his city's infrastructure should have cleared his city faster when he realized how powerful Katrina was. Instead of encouraging anger and rioting with his hystrionic blaming of everyone in sight, he should be trying to calm the city, reassure survivors and doing what Mayor Rudy did in the wake of 9/11.

And don't forget, the reason relief hit New York faster after 9/11 was that the infrastructure was still intact. You could drive into town. The ferries and buses still worked. Not as big an area was impacted and you didn't have authorities shutting down highways into the area because there wasn't enough fuel for all the cars, trucks and buses headed that way.

It's bad guys, no doubt about it, but we need to be focusing on what we are doing. Maybe it will give others some idea how to help. The federal government can do a lot to help in the long run, but for right now, it's our neighbors and ourselves that need to be out there in our boats and organizing ourselves into self-help groups to bring order to our own neighborhoods as well as possible. Help is coming as fast as we can get it there. Just don't shoot us when we do roll into town, okay?

Just one man's opinion....

Tom King

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