Through pure coincidence this week I happened to read two books relating to hurricane Katrina, one fiction and one nonfiction. The Tin Roof Blowdown, a James Lee Burke mystery, uses Katrina as background and plot element while Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc's memoir, Not Just the Levees Broke, takes a very personal look at the storm. Yesterday was the third anniversary of Katrina hitting New Orleans. Reading both I had the same reaction: how the fuck could something like that happen here?
It's a question a lot of people asked (and are still asking). Even the die-hard libertarians who have absolutely no use for the government believe that in a true emergency there is a safety net. Well, it turned out that's not true if you're poor, disabled, and/or black. Montana-LeBlanc lived in an apartment complex where quite a few of the residents did not evacuate -- they were elderly, or they didn't have cars, or they simply believed after years of living through storms that didn't turn out to be as bad as predicted that the danger was being exaggerated. They spent several days marooned in buildings surrounded by chest-deep water while helicopters flew over and ignored them. Even worse, on at least one occasion, a helicopter dropped down low enough for the pilot to look people in the face and then left -- and never came back. In the end, the tenants banded together to turn refrigerators from the first floor apartments into rafts so they could begin evacuating to higher ground on their own.
And now Gustav is rolling towards the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. This time around the various politicians seem to be a little better prepared. Mayor Nagin is claiming they know where everyone is, and that arrangements have been made to use buses to evacuate those who cannot evacuate themselves, like the elderly who do not drive. All the mortality reports for Katrina indicate that over 50 percent of the people who died last time were the elderly, and the main reason they died were they had no way to leave. As usual for Saturday morning, C-SPAN is on, and at the moment they're talking about a news article that includes a photo of nursing home residents being evacuated inland -- so maybe this time no one's going to end dying of thirst or the heat in a hospital bed.
Large Nameless Agency sent around e-mails reminding people to make sure their contact information is up to date in case they have to be deployed in response to Gustav. I am on a call-up list, although I've wondered since the day I was asked if I was willing to deploy in response to emergencies just what good having a technical writer on the scene would do (maybe The Director doesn't want to take a chance on saying the equivalent of "heckuva a job, Brownie"? LNA wants to be sure all the commas are in the right places in the press releases?). Actually, if I do get a call, it won't be to go to the Gulf Coast. It will be to head in to LNA's emergency operations center to help write or proofread press releases providing updates to the public. My name is probably pretty far down the list, though, so I don't think my phone will be ringing.