More thoughts and questions on Hurricane Katrina...
Last Monday evening, my daughter and I went to the Charlotte Colisseum with several bags of clothes, books, cosmetic items, and school supplies to donate them to the evacuees from the Gulf Coast who ended up here in our home city. After we passed through a metal detecting security checkpoint, we were directed to the Red Cross volunteer table. I asked if it would be possible for us to read some stories to the children - in English or Spanish, to paint some fingernails, to hang out, and provide some human comfort to those who had lost so much.
"Sorry, ma'am. Sorry, the children have all dispersed, so reading to them isn't an option right now. Your daughter has to be 18 years or older. Nope, she cannot help with sorting clothes either because that takes place on the site of the residence and the minimum age for any volunteers is 18. You have to have a minimum of four hours at a time to help out. You must go through training classes in order to help. No one is allowed to enter the residence itself. I'm not exactly sure if we have any Spanish speakers; sometimes we do, but I'm not sure at the moment."
We wanted to help, but we couldn't.
I remembered the story told by the woman at the Labor Day dinner a few weekends ago; whe works for the Red Cross. She said that the Red Cross was on site and ready to offer aid to those evacuating the Gulf Coast within 24 hours of the storm, but they too were denied access to the affected areas for far too long. Doctors and nurses who were airlifted out of New Orleans hospitals and deposited at the airport there were told to mop floors instead of helping needy patients because liability was too high if they weren't government appointed physicians. One doctor wept as he told the CNN reporter of his anguish at watching patients die all around him.
They wanted to help but they couldn't.
I am curious to see who will be allowed to help. Whose companies will be allowed access to complete the demolition of those destroyed cities? Whose companies will be given no-bid contracts to rebuild? Whose companies will service the affected regions? Will the men and women who lived and worked in New Orleans be allowed to come and do some of the work, to be paid to rebuild the city they called home for so many years?
I also wonder whose opinions will be taken into account when rebuilding New Orleans? One wise friend of mine believes that those who lost their homes, those who lived in public housing, those who lived in rental properties should be consulted in this process. What kind of communities do they wish to return to? What kinds of resources did they lack prior to Katrina that can now be factored into the reconstruction equation? Will there be more access to public transportation or will their new homes be built closer to the communities they serve and service? Will they have easy access to supermarkets, doctors, libraries, and schools? Is it possible to build neighborhoods that reflect the small town feel of ages gone by: where cars and minivans aren't needed in order to shop for groceries? Is it possible to construct buildings that allow for easier handicapped access, safe child-geared play areas, and access to evacuation routing should it become necessary again?
Isn't it a little uncomfortable to read these questions and try to find answers to them? I am so steeped in the philosophy that says, "He who has the money makes the decisions" that I cannot imagine asking poor people to dream aloud about where and how they'd like to live. I am so steeped in the philosophy that says that no one has "a right" to health care, that no one has "a right" to decent housing, that those who pay their way are those whose opinions matter, that it's hard to imagine a society or a city in which those of us who have money and health care and homes we own have to accept someone else's opinion or allow others to enjoy the benefits we take for granted. Even if it's true, that we don't have the right to demand anything of anyone else, even if it's true that we deserve absolutely no mercy or grace or kindness, shouldn't we extend grace and mercy and compassion to others simply because it's the right thing to do? Shouldn't we, especially those of us who cling to the notion that this is a Christian nation, that ours is a Christian president, and that Christian moral values ought to be upheld, shouldn't we be setting the example of compassion in this dark and dismal situation?
A few days ago, I was hearing a lot about "the blame game." It was a popular phrase on the lips of reporters and politicians alike. Some wanted to lay blame (myself included) and some wanted to avoid laying blame. One of the sharpest and funniest modern-day philosophers in America, Jon Stewart said: "Those who don't want to play the blame game are usually to blame." But sarcastic comments aside, I began to consider the issue of responsibility. Why don't we forget laying blame and begin to take responsibility?
When I burn dinner, it's my responsibility. It's doesn't make sense to blame the electric company for a power surge that hit my stovetop. When I neglect to feed my new puppy, it's my responsibility. It doesn't make sense to blame the children for distracting me from my duty as mother to the newest baby in our midst. Sure, I'd do anything to avoid playing the blame game in those situations; but evasion on my part does nothing to dismiss the truth that what is my fault is my fault. I didn't do what I was supposed to do. I forgot. I didn't pay attention. I didn't take it seriously. I must stand up and tell the truth: I did it. I messed up. Here's how I'm gonna make it right.
To that end, I was shocked, amazed, almost incredulous when President Bush stood before television cameras on two occasions last week and took responsibility for the failings of the federal government with relation to the crisis on the Gulf Coast. He said that as President he is responsible for the problem and for the solution. As he stood there last week and spoke of the hope of New Orleans being rebuilt better than ever, as he spoke poetically of the glory that will return to that great city, I couldn't help but speak out loud to the talking head on my television screen. "So how are you going to make this right? You've taken responsibility and that's admirable. But who will you pick to rebuild those ravaged places? Please don't let us see the names of the same companies who had first dibs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who will be given first consideration by FEMA and other charities in the task of giving aid to those in need? Please don't let it be the wealthy people with big houses and equally large insurance policies. What will happen differently in the future when tragedies like this occur? Will you rush home from vacation and meet the needs head-on? Will you dispatch your best and brightest leaders rather than friends or friends of friends? That fiasco with FEMA Director Brown has yet to be sufficiently explained. Please make sure that there is better resume checking in the future."
No one who knows anything about me is the least bit surprised that I struggle with disappointment with the current administration. I am no Republican, and unless the political climate in this nation changes drastically in the coming years, I don't expect I ever will be. However, the disappointment and shame and anger I feel right now is less political than it is spiritual.
Hundreds of people wanted to help the needy when they arrived in Charlotte. Hundreds more were ready and willing down there where the disaster struck. At a time when so many were in need, help was denied them for reasons I will never understand. Millions of dollars have been donated to various agencies and churches and organizations as a result of this hurricane. What do we do now?
For the love of God, in light of His great mercy, let us prove that we are above favoritism and fear of lawsuits and personal or political pride, and let us do the right thing now because it is the right thing to do. Let us include the underprivileged and the displaced, the powerless and underrepresented in the planning and execution of this long process of restoration. Let us move away from the usual models of allowing wealth, power, and political access to dictate the outcome and allow justice, fairness, and brotherly kindness be the units of measure by which we gauge our growth in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Let us show we are Christians by our love, by our hard-work, by our willingness to continue to be held accountable, by our unrelenting availability to those in need, and by our unimpeachable integrity.