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Sep 15 2005

Why poor people find it hard to abandon their homes

One of the commentators who harshly criticized the reluctance of so many poor people to leave prior to and after the hurricane hit New Orleans expressed amazement at their attitude. After all, he, said, such people had few possessions of value. Their clothes and furniture were of Goodwill store quality and their cars were usually junk. Unlike rich people who owned things of real value, poor people’s stuff was valueless and thus could be easily abandoned to the floodwaters or looters. He concluded that their reluctance to leave was irrational and their stubborn decision to stay in the face of warnings meant that they had forfeited any right to sympathy and assistance.

But as I said in a previous posting, such an attitude, apart from betraying a dismaying lack of empathy, also reveals a deep lack of understanding. It is precisely because they are so poor that whatever possessions they own are so valuable to them. Poor people who buy and drive beaten up old cars do so because it was what they can just barely afford. For many, having even a very old car means the difference between working and being unemployed, eating and going hungry, since a car may be the only way they can get to their jobs. Losing that car is a major disaster for them, whereas for better-off people, losing a car to flooding or looting does not have the same impact. It can be a financial hit but it is rarely life-changing.

Another reason that some people (both poor and not-so-poor) refused to leave their homes was because they could not take their pets with them and this too mystified some observers. Marc Fisher, a Washington Post columnist responded this way to someone who wondered why he/she found it so disturbing to see animals in distress or dead during the storm. He said: “Beats me. But then again, I cannot fathom why all these folks who stayed behind to take care of their pets would risk their lives for an animal that they could easily replace at any pet store.”

I can only conclude that Fisher has never really had and loved a pet. If you ask most pet owners, making the decision not to abandon a pet would be considered not only perfectly rational but they would be surprised to think that there was any other option. Abandoning their pet would be considered inhumane.

I saw a video clip in which a man was telling reporters that a young man and his dog had rescued him from his roof. All three were by the roadside because the young man was refusing to leave New Orleans because his dog, which had been the twenty-four year old man’s friend and companion for fourteen years, would not be able to go with him. During the entire interview, the young man was petting and holding on to the dog and crying while the dog, recognizing that his owner was distressed, affectionately licked his face and tried to console him, as dogs are wont to do.

It was only after the interviewer promised to take the dog in his own vehicle to Baton Rouge and reunite him there later with the young man that he relinquished his grasp of the dog. And the story did have a happy ending when they showed the pair happily together again the following day. It was an extremely moving clip.

Is such a fierce attachment to an animal irrational? Perhaps. But if so, I would argue that it is precisely such irrational attachments that make life worth living. Pets bring us great joy and affection.

I must admit that before I acquired a dog of my own, I too did not fully understand the strong feelings that people have towards their pets, so I do not want to judge harshly the person who made the above statement about the disposability of pets. I just want to suggest that we cannot always assume that we know and understand what is important to other people and prescribe how they should act in extreme situations.

We are not machines. Our whole emotional fabric is wrapped around our personal life experiences and when people’s life situations are much different from ours, it is likely that they will have different views on what is important in their lives and what to do in extreme situations. Especially in their times of great need, we have to respect their wishes as much as is humanly possible. And our emergency rescue procedures should take this into account when we make evacuation plans.

POST SCRIPT 1

This week The Daily Show is doing a four part series on evolution. You can see part 1, part 2 , part 3-I, and part 3-II.

POST SCRIPT 2

Sometimes one picture really does just say it all….

bushphoto.jpg

(Thanks to the Progressive Review website.)

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