Friday, January 06, 2006

Katrina Was Not A Middle-Class Problem

Update: My beloved wife said that after reading the original post she thinks the hypothetical person without a car is a different person from the hypothetical middle-class mother. If that's the case I still stand by what I wrote below, but much of it is moot.
Crooked Timber drew my attention to a post at True Blue about the difficulties of evacuating from New Orleans in the time leading up to Hurricane Katrina. The author, discussing the situation of a hypothetical middle-class woman with 3 children, comes to the conclusion that evacuation would be "[f]lat out impossible". I recognize the difficulties that the evacuation posed and that, as the author notes, many of those who did not evacuate were poor, old, or children1, but I can't but feel that the author is setting up a rhetorical strawman (strawwoman?) in the case of the middle-class mother. For starters:
Every middle-class mother hears "immediate evacuation" and "5 days in the Superdome" and thinks, "Jesus Christ, I have no idea how much water I would bring for 5 days. Is it 5 gallons? Ohmigod, where are our passports? Do I have to bring the kids' birth certificates? What about the deed to the house? Would I have time to get my mother's jewelery [sic] out of the safe deposit, or is that selfishness that's going to kill my children?"
My first reaction is "Yes, getting your mother's jewelry out of the safe deposit box is a dumb idea. Some wonder it takes you so long to pack for the beach". This may sound unduly harsh, but I can't help but feel that its exactly her middle-classed-ness that makes this hypothetical into an intractable problem. Reading the stories of refugees from other countries I find that a consistent theme is when you're fleeing disaster you just pick up and go. Bear in mind also that many of these people were fleeing through hostile territory into neighboring countries, whereas our hypothetical mother of 3 need only travel to a different state at the most. Why the hell is she worrying about passports, birth certificates, and the deed to her house? Take your driver's license and worry about your house later, when everyone is safe. Now that I'm really getting my rant on let's look at the limitations that the author places on this hypothetical mother:
Tell her that she's got to evacuate without a car, and she'll start shaking her head. Tell her she's gotta do it in 18 hours, greyhound and Amtrak are shut down, it's 250 miles to get out of the hurricane's path, and she's got $200 bucks in her pocket, and every soccer mom will know with certainty what every soccer dad doesn't get--that it's impossible. Flat out impossible.
There's no justification provided as why this particular set of limitations is being imposed, hence the earlier comment about strawpersonage. So let's tackle these items one at a time:
  • 18 hours to evacuate: Think Progress has a lovely Katrina timeline, which leads me to conclude that that the 18 hours refers (roughly) to the span of time between the mayor issuing the mandatory evacuation order (9:30 am on the 28th) and landfall of the hurricane (7 am on the 29th). Why did she wait so long to begin preparations? As a middle-class mother she's educated and has access to the news, so its not unreasonable for her to be aware that a storm was approaching. For example, CNN report on 8/26 that "[a]s Katrina gathers strength preparing for its final assault on the Gulf Coast, residents from the Florida Panhandle to Louisiana are boarding up their homes, expecting the worst from a potential Category 4 hurricane". Even allowing for some journalistic hyperbole this would indicate that residents of the Gulf Coast were aware of the seriousness of the oncoming storm well before the official evacuation order.
  • Without at car: Not sure why there's no car available; a middle-class mother of 3 almost certainly owns one, since lack of private vehicles in New Orleans primarily affects the poor. Others will be trying to flee as well, and you might end up in an hours long traffic jam, but you still have a car. The roads might be flooded but, as I indicated above, if the roads are already flooded you waited too long.
  • Greyhound and Amtrak shutdown: We've already established that as a middle-class mother you likely own a car. If, you don't then you probably know someone who does. In the author's defense on this one, those who didn't own cars and tried to get out late in the game were SOL.
  • 250 miles to get out of the hurrican's path: True, but based on this flood map it looks like you could at least get away from the flooded areas as long as you got South of the Mississippi. According to Google it's about 12 miles as the person walks to go from Swan St. (down by the lake) to Burmaster St (basically where you would be after crossing the 90 bridge). That's a long way to walk, especially with kids. But shit, it beats being in a flood, doesn't it?
  • $200: Total red herring. Hello, credit cards? Anywhere you could use cash prior to landfall you could probably use credit as well.
In conclusion, I don't think the author's argument holds up. A middle class mother of 3 almost certainly had the resources at her disposal to evacuate safely. Granted, the evacuation would suck and there'd be a lot of loss associated with the incident, but to claim that the evacuation is impossible is clearly disingenuous.
1 Which is another problem all together, at least in the case of children and the elderly. It implies that these individuals, who cannot reasonably be expected to fend for themselves, had no support system to take care of them. In the case of the poor, I believe that a some portion of my argument can be applied to them as well, though their diminished resources obviously makes the situation much more difficult.

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