Those Who Fell Through The Cracks

The hurricane had no prejudice. Being black or white, rich or poor, native-born American or immigrant didn’t matter. As one fisherman noted on a sultry afternoon while mooring his tiny craft on a battered dock in Pass Christian, Mississippi (MS), “the storm had to come down and remind everyone who the real master was.” It arrived in Barras, Louisiana (LA) on August 29, 2005 from the Gulf of Mexico, and ended a day later in Meridian, MS, resulting in a multi-billion dollar cleanup, rebuilding and evacuation effort which still sputters along two years later. In response to the question “why stay?”, those who lived along the Gulf Coast in communities such as Gulfshores, Alabama (AL), New Orleans, and Biloxi, argue that the hurricane was the price of living in paradise, closer to the sea air and larger than life sunsets.

Asking the question posited a belief that everyone had a range of choices. That poor Vietnamese fishermen could survive by living in say, Albany, New York, or suburban Maryland, or parched dry Houston, Texas, some of the places those who lost everything but their lives were taken by the federal government, and left to return by their own resources. That black and Latino sharecroppers could adapt to life in urban, industrialized cities more than fifty years after the Great Migration brought the direct descendants of slaves to Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., the first time. To the residents who witnessed and survived Hurricane Katrina, asking the question “why stay?” was the same as former First Lady Barbara Bush commenting that people evacuated to the Houston Astrodome, sleeping on cots and eating donated food were better off than in the places from where they came.

The hurricane showed the best and the worst of America. For the briefest moment, the survivors were together as one. Misery loves company and horrified by televised scenes of frightened crowds in the New Orleans Superdome, or desperate homeowners waving white flags in the air from rooftops, the rest of the United States and the entire world, responded. But the safety net guaranteed to all Americans in need, at anytime, had holes. It became the norm to call the displaced “refugees,” contradicting the literal meaning of the term, as if moving from one state to another could be likened to Darfurians in Chad, or Iraqis in Jordan. The Civil War may have ended in the late-19th Century, but the North-South divide still remains.

The year Hurricane Katrina hit, 2005, saw three of the strongest storms ever recorded hit the United States, Katrina, Rita and Wilma. The weakest of the three, Katrina, had the most damaging impact causing $80 billion in damage over an area the size of the United Kingdom. While the citizens of New Orleans have the most high profile struggle to recover, the individuals and communities along I-10-one of three highways running the entire span of the country-endure in the shadows.
“The South,” those states comprising the lower third of the United States, is a region which lends itself to romanticism. The past and the present co-exist as reality, and seemingly there is a church on every street corner, Confederate flags blow in the wind unabashedly, and the names of hurricanes such as Betsy, Katrina, Rita, and Camille are spoken with familiarity, and fear. Antebellum-era family feuds are still maintained as if the perceived slight happened yesterday, and the hunger-inducing odors of shrimp and oysters mix with fried okra, beans and rice, cornbread and banana moonshine in the forgotten towns dotting highways 10 and 90 along the Gulf of Mexico coast.
    The hurricane was misleading. The faces on cable news networks or newspaper and magazine covers were black, desperate faces, the faces of “looters,” not “scavengers” or “survivors.” Yet, the middle class and wealthy residents of Bay St. Louis, MS or Lakeview neighborhood in New Orleans were white, and black, and Asian. They too, took what wasn’t originally theirs in order to escape dehydration or starvation. The perception remains that the storm was a “black problem,” and in the United States if one is black-or non-white, and poor, it means being invisible and disenfranchised.
Revered scholar, activist and founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People W.E.B. duBois once noted, “so goes the South, so goes America.” The tenor of social life in the southern region of the United States is an indicator of the larger reality of America. If nothing else, the country was founded and remains hinged on an ideal of so-called “rugged individualism,” the belief hard work, perseverance and focus will inevitably end in reward. America reached out its helping hand to Southerners, but all generosity has its limits and soon enough, survivors who wanted to return and rebuild were on their own.