Why natural disasters don’t affect all equally

There has been one aspect of the hurricane Katrina events and its aftermath that has been bothering me and that is the harsh way that people are being criticized for not leaving the city either in advance of the storm or even after.

In a much earlier post concerning the Terri Schiavo case, I said that I find it almost impossible to judge other people’s actions based on hypothesizing what one would do in if one were in that other person’s situation, if the hypothetical situation is very different from what one has personally experienced. In the Schiavo case, I felt that since I had never had to make a decision about removing life support from someone close to me, I couldn’t really make a judgment about whether Schiavo’s parents or her husband was in the right.

The same situation applies to forced evacuations of people from the devastated areas. I am lucky to have never been in such a situation. My own feeling is that I would very likely have evacuated. But unlike some officials and other commentators, I am not going to criticize those who made the decision to stay.

As has become clear, being told to leave and having the ability to leave quickly are two very different things. Although I have never been rich and don’t expect (or even have the desire) to be so, I am extremely fortunate in that I have never been really poor either, in the sense of ever having had to worry about my next meal or whether I had clothes and shoes to wear, or whether I would have a house and a bed to sleep in at night. In the event of a disaster, it would be easy for me, for example, to put my family in a car and drive away to a safe place and to use my savings and credit card to get food and housing, until insurance kicks in to help us replace our belongings and rebuild our lives. At most, evacuating temporarily would be an inconvenience.

But for poor people, who live from paycheck to paycheck, and have no savings or credit cards, leaving their homes is much more difficult. Where will they go? Where will they stay? How will they pay? A lot of them have no cars at their disposal and even if they do may not have enough ready money at their disposal to fill up the tank to make a long trip away from danger. They have to depend very much on the kindness and charity of strangers and this is something that they may not expect to receive, since poor people are often looked upon with suspicion by those who are better off.

The way poor people view their relationship with the world is different from that of middle class or rich people. While the stereotype is that poor people are the ones who are accustomed to getting things “free” from the state, the reality is that it is the better off amongst us who expect the state to provide us with high quality services (highways, police, health care, fire protection, and other government services) either for free or at subsidized rates, and who expect the government to promptly take care of us in emergencies. Poor people don’t automatically view government officials (especially the police, military) as their allies whose duty is to protect them, the way that middle class and rich people do. The events in New Orleans, and particularly what happened on the bridge to Gretna is only going to confirm their suspicions that they will be treated as less deserving of even the basic decencies.

As an extreme example, a rescue worker in a helicopter who was trying to lift someone off the roof of her building spoke of his amazement when the woman was reluctant to get on board because she was worried that she would have to pay for the ride and she had no money. Such a thought would never cross the mind of the better off, who instead would be very angry if they were not rescued promptly by government authorities.

Although most people have poor relatives and have seen homeless and other very destitute people, that does not really qualify us to understand and really feel what it is like to be poor. I remember the impact that George Orwell’s semi-autobiographical book Down and Out in Paris and London had on me. In it he described his own experiences of being poor and sometimes homeless in those cities. More recently, Barbara Ehrenreich in her poor Nickel and Dimed: Being Poor in America described what it was like to be, at least temporarily, a member of the working poor.

In both books what comes across is, contrary to expectations, how complicated life is when you are poor. We tend to think that it is rich people with their property and mortgages and investments and possessions whose lives are complicated. But those two books say that making a go of it when you are poor means always living on the edge.

Poor people live a precarious day-to-day existence and to survive they usually depend on an informal network of people and services around them to survive. Getting to work at often more than one job, taking care of children, cooking and cleaning house, and the other things that go into maintaining daily life often involve tricky juggling because they do not have the extra money or time that can simplify things. Such people often have to borrow money and food and other items from friends, relatives, and neighbors to tide things over in emergencies, and the ’emergencies’ themselves occur so often as to be almost routine. A lot of the services that better off people pay for are arranged through a system of bartering so that people are tied into more people than their immediate families. (See Dave’s comment to the previous posting. He has worked as a doctor in the poorer sections of New Orleans and knows the conditions of the people there.)

All this makes people tightly bound to their immediate environments and can make it hard to leave. To suddenly move somewhere else is much more difficult for them to do than for people like me because their supporting network is an important part of their lives and having it suddenly ripped apart is difficult to accept. While I like my own neighbors and my community, I am not really dependent on them for my daily living. I could move tomorrow to another part of the city or another county or state without too much difficulty.

I will explore this more in a future posting, to drive home that point that perhaps we should not be so quick to condemn those who did not, and still do not, want to leave their homes.


This week The Daily Show is doing a four part series on evolution. You can see part 1


The Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities and SAGES present THE ANISFIELD-WOLF LECTURE

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. will give a talk on Pursuing a Dream: W.E.B. Du Bois and His Encyclopedia,

Thursday, September 15, 2005

11:30 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
Severance Hall 

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities and Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

The event is free and open to the public. To register, go here.

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