An editorial in today’s New York Times entitled “‘Never Again,’ Again“:

Hurricane Gustav gave the state of Louisiana a test for which it had three years to prepare. There were thousands of poor, sick, disabled and elderly people who could not get out on their own. They needed to be rescued with dispatch, and sheltered in safety and dignity.

One simple test. The state flunked.

It’s shameful, really, that anyone would want to excuse or ignore this. Only a week after Gustav made landfall in Louisiana, LSUS Professor Jeffrey Sadow published a piece on his blog, which is widely circulated among other conservative websites, entitled “Whiners Demand More Luxurious State-Run Shelters.” Quoting from Sadow’s blog:

Chances are the vast majority of the non-infirm who got free rides and accommodations as a result of the evacuation from the state government are entirely used to government handouts and not only expect them, they demand them whether they lift a finger ever to deserve such rewards from Americans who work and who through the goodness of their hearts allow taxes to be levied on them to pay for these others’ lifestyle choices. These ingrates have a better life than some of our troops, for example, who work and sleep in scorching heat, with no bathroom or showers for days on end, and facing lethal force on top it all – any many of them probably make less in regular pay than the abled complainers get from government for doing nothing.

Sadow apparently saw the legitimate complaints about the conditions of shelters as an opportunity to express his indignation at the hypothetical possibility that most of these families rely on other government assistance and “handouts.” And, perhaps most offensively, he attempts to compare the conditions of our troops in the battlefield in order to argue that, hey, things could be worse. Sadow’s disdain for the poor prevents him from recognizing the obvious: Without an evacuation plan that includes individuals and families who could not otherwise evacuate, we would be leaving those Americans in harm’s way. And without an evacuation strategy that treats those individuals and families with even a modicum of dignity (ensuring, for example, they have adequate restroom facilities), those Americans will be less inclined to evacuate.

Back to the Times editorial (bold mine):

Evacuees said they had had no idea where they were going; bus drivers would not tell them. When they arrived, there were not enough portable toilets, and no showers. For five days there was no way to bathe, except with bottled water in filthy outdoor toilets. Privacy in the vast open space — 1,000 people to a warehouse, shoulder-to-shoulder on cots — was nonexistent. The mood among evacuees was grim, surrounded as they were by police officers and the National Guard, with no visitors or reporters allowed.

“We didn’t want to evacuate into a prison,” Lethia Brooks told the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, an organization that accompanied the evacuees, inspected the shelters and collected hundreds of stories into a report sharply critical of the state’s response.

Gustav ended up being no Katrina, and the week of suffering was not as severe as the deathly mayhem of three years ago. But residents had every right to expect far better treatment than they received. After a week of indignities in crowded, unsanitary shelters, many returned home with their fragile finances in turmoil. They had been forced to buy extra basics while out of their homes, and September rent was due.

The secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Social Services, which was responsible for the shelters, resigned after this scandal and one involving problems with food stamp distribution.

Now, many poor residents are vowing “never again,” as in, “Never again will we get on the bus to be warehoused. We’ll ride out the next storm.” In New Orleans, disaster is never far away, and government incompetence cannot be allowed to undermine a swift, sure evacuation. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration should move quickly on a better plan that does not expose the poor to differential, substandard treatment.

No one doubts the hard work and the sacrifice of the men and women in the Louisiana Department of Social Services, and I don’t think anyone would blame the individual men and women with the results of the poor planning that resulted in so many people being subjected to those conditions. This shouldn’t be used as an opportunity to scapegoat.

And lest anyone think the New York Times is being hyperbolic, consider this article in The Shreveport Times:

“It was an eye-opener,” said state Rep. Patrick Williams, D-Shreveport, who described the smell of urine, filthy, limited restroom facilities and evacuees lying on cots suffering in hot, stagnant rooms at one shelter. “When you walk in expecting one thing and then you see what you see — that’s really what got us. (Evacuees) understood this was an emergency, but if they could get clean and be comfortable, I think it would have been a lot more comfortable (at the shelters).”

Conditions at state-run shelters not only were criticized by local officials but also by faith-based groups and a New Orleans advocacy group that led the Thursday protest. The group maintained DSS policy of sending critical transportation needs evacuees to state-run shelters was differential and prejudicial.

“Across Louisiana, the poor people, who are still suffering, were evacuated to disgusting, inhumane conditions like this,” said Saket Soni, New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice spokesman.

The Shreveport Times also attempts to uncover who, exactly, is to blame (though no one can agree):

Even so, officials disagreed who should shoulder the blame for shelter conditions.

Cooper points to lease contracts for the buildings negotiated under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s administration as one reason. Under the agreements, the owners of the former mall on Greenwood Road receive about $42,000 monthly. The state pays $30,000 a month for the Jewella property.

Both leases commenced in June 2007 and are three- or five-year contracts, said Sandy Davis.

Davis did not know if the state made monthly or lump sum payments to the landlords. However, the annual cost for the leases is about $504,000 for the former outlet mall and about $360,000 for the former Sam’s Club. So far, the leases have cost at least $1.08 million.

Caddo Parish tax assessor records show the outlet mall is owned by Professional Properties of Shreveport, LLC, of Irvine, Calif., which purchased the property in October 2005 for $550,000.

Investment Properties of America paid $2.75 million in April 2007 for the former Sam’s Club, according to Caddo Parish clerk of court records.

Cooper and others were at a loss to explain why the Greenwood shelter — which, along with the Jewella facility, was inspected in August by Williamson and State Police Col. Michael D. Edmonson and determined to be adequate — did not have air conditioning. On-site restrooms at both were minimal and did not include showers. Evaluating those leases, which were not available for inspection, would be a priority in the coming weeks, Cooper said.

13 thoughts

  1. I would like to see some statistics from past major hurricanes – Betsy or Camille for example – on what percentages of the population evacuated on their own vs those who stayed vs those who were evacuated by the government and given all the comforts of home while away . The appearance that we are doing a worse job of evacuating the poor / sick / disabled may be attributed to several factors. 1) There are higher concentration of people living in hurricane prone areas 2)There are more poor / sick /disabled now as a percentage of the population than there were in the past (proof that Johnson’s Great Society didn’t work) 3) We have a greater understanding of and less tolerance for the loss of life that hurricanes cause. C’mon Lamar, you have to admit that the response to Gustav was so much better than the response – or lack thereof – to Katrina, from all levels of government. Can we do better? Certainly we can. But at some point, folks have to take some responsibility for their own safety and well being.

  2. Darren,

    I’m sorry, my friend, but no one expects “the comforts of home while away” at a shelter during a hurricane evacuation. However, I think everyone should expect that when we’re spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars every year to LEASE shelter space, that space should — AT LEAST– have air conditioning and adequate restroom facilities.

    Of course we did a better job “evacuating the poor/sick/disabled,” because this time, we actually evacuated!

    With regard to your three points:

    1) Because of coastal erosion, no doubt, we’re all more vulnerable.

    2) No offense, but only an ideologue would blame this on LBJ and the Great Society. Somehow, if there are more poor people in Louisiana, in your view, it’s because of the failure of the Great Society. Seriously? LBJ?

    3) Agreed. And we should have zero tolerance for lives lost.

  3. I always thought that it was because of the failure of Reaganomics (trickle down economics, etc.) was the reason why there are more poor/sick/disabled citizens. Unless of course the point of Reagan’s tax and spending policies (tax the rich less, spend more) was to exacerbate the rate of increase of the wealth of those in the upper echelons of wealth and to decrease the wealth of those in the lower echelons of wealth, which it was unexpectedly successful at accomplishing. As EVIDENCE (because those of us employed in the hard and social sciences are required to provide evidence when making claims), I reference the book, Readings in the Theory of Action, edited by Norman S. Care and Charles Landesman (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1968), pp. 285-6:

    “What was the result of Reagan’s “trickle-down economics,” as the policy was called? One result, which suggests that it worked, was that the economy, after its previous stagnation, began to expand again. Looking at the period from 1977 to 1988, the economy sustained an average annual growth rate of 2.2%–not spectacular but certainly an improvement over its previous stagnation. Arguably, therefore, the Reagan “trickle-down” policy produced results that justified it in terms of the Difference Principle [the idea that government policies are justified if they help the majority of citizens].
    But actually this is not so. If we divide the population into income levels from the poorest tenth or decile to the wealthiest tenth and look at the gains and losses sustained by these income groups over the same period of time, we find that most people, particularly the poorest, lost income and only the very wealthy gained in income. Here are the figures, taken from the Republican political analyst Kevin Phillips’s The Politics of Rich and Poor (New York: Random House, 1990), p. 17 (again see references therein for ultimate sources of statistics):

    Percentage Change in income for the period 1977-88, organized by income deciles from poorest to wealthiest:

    Poorest tenth……. -14.8% Sixth……………. -5.4%
    Second poorest……. -8.0% Seventh………….. -4.3%
    Third poorest…….. -6.2% Eighth…………… -1.8%
    Fourth…………… -6.6% Ninth……………. +1.0%
    Fifth……………. -6.3% Tenth…………… +16.5%

    Top 5%………….. +23.4% Top 1%………….. +49.8%

    This tells an interesting tale. It is false that everyone was made better off by the Reaganite policy. The very wealthy, the top ten percent and especially the top one percent, were made significantly better off; some members of the upper middle class (the ninth decile) were made very slightly better off; everyone else, especially those in the poorest tenth, was made in varying degrees worse off. The Reaganite policy is not justified in terms of the Difference Principle. (There is some evidence that Reagan officials never expected their policy to work to everyone’s benefit; they only expected it to work to the advantage of the very wealthy. So, in their public statements explaining and justifying their economic policy, Reagan and the members of his administration lied to the American public.)”

    Which, of course, is UNETHICAL.

  4. Excuse me, I made a mistake in my referencing. The quoted section of my previous comment is actually from a literature review of the section of the text Readings in the Theory of Action, edited by Norman S. Care and Charles Landesman (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1968), pp. 285-6:, which correctly cites the Republican political analyst Kevin Phillips’s The Politics of Rich and Poor (New York: Random House, 1990), p. 17 (again see references therein for ultimate sources of statistics), as the source for the figures in the table. Apologies.

  5. Sorry guys….I didn’t intend to hit you in your liberal “funny bones”. But heh…I started it! The intent of my post was to simply ask…are we doing a better job of warning folks of the dangers of hurricanes and evacuating those who either cannot or will not leave for whatever reasons? The answer is yes and not open to debate. Also, are we taking better care of them while they are away from home than in the past. This is where the rub comes in. But hey, if you like the way our government efficiently and effectively runs a hurricane evacuation….you’ll love it when we turn healthcare over to them.

  6. Sorry…I forgot to add this at my previous post. I watched a great show on LPB (I think) about the Flood of 1927 and have also read the book at the link. If nothing else, it does remind us of how far we have come already.

  7. Darren, absolutely we’re doing a better job, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that taxpayers have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars leasing facilities from private businesses to ensure adequate shelters– and the failure of those businesses and the government to remain accountable.

    I don’t think this is excusable, and I don’t think comparing this to expanding health care access for 47 million Americans is fair or appropriate.

    Somehow, we can find $700 billion to bail out Wall Street, yet we’ve been told for decades how expanding health care would somehow bankrupt this country.

    And for people like me, Darren, it’s not like we’re handing “health care” over to anyone because private insurance simply refuses to provide me with coverage.

    Sorry to make it personal, but health care is an issue I don’t like joking about or excusing.

    By the way– on a lighter note– I also saw the PBS documentary. It was fantastic, and thanks for referencing an amazing book. (John Barry was the keynote speaker at this year’s Rising Tide 3 blogger’s conference in NOLA).

  8. hey buddy! love what your doing. dont agree with 98% of it, but im glad it exists. if what you are trying to say is things were better this time than last time, but still need ALOT of improvement, then we’re in that two percent of agreement. i volunteered the first night at the shelter in the coliseum, and it was the worst night of my life. it was really sad. the conditions were bad. not enough cots, no room to walk, no privacy, no peace, faulty air conditioner. it can be better. alot better if and when it happens again, with proper preparation. but refugees from other countries expect tents. if your choices are possibly die, or live in filth for a week…c’mon. However. we can take steps to make the conditions better, even though i dont think it will help. if every refugee isnt put up in the ramada inn, their still going to feel mistreated. people are greedy.

  9. Adrian, I don’t think anyone expects our shelters to be like a room at the Ramada Inn, but I think the specific criticisms of the conditions of some of the shelters (particularly those in Shreveport) are worthy of our attention.

    I think we both agree things can be better and should be better. This, in no way, should be taken as a criticism of the great people who volunteered to help their community (and their State) during a disaster. They were tremendous, particularly considering, as you point out, the terrible conditions.


  10. Lamar,

    I too have had problems obtaining health insurance from time to time due to a pre-existing heart condition I had. Most folks likely would not have a problem with some sort of government regulation and/or supplements to assist those who the insurance companies won’t carry for reasons like yours.

    I assume that the 47 million Americans who don’t have health insurance either can’t afford, can’t get it, or choose not to buy it. Providing them and everyone else with “universal” coverage is a noble goal but is not the role of our government. If we do that, then what’s next? Universal housing access…ooops we tried that and it failed. How about universal access to luxury cars, jobs, money, loose women, beer, wine…. you get my drift. None of these things are gauranteed by our constitution. They can package it however they want but it’s still socialism.

  11. Very clever, Darren, and good point about universal housing access. I seem to recall a Heritage Foundation study from 2001 that renounced smart growth in favor of an aggressive home ownership agenda. I think you posted about it. I’m thinking about writing a post that describes the relationship between the sprawl economy and the current economic crisis.

    Anyway, I think ensuring public health is the prerogative of government, and to that end, I agree with mandating health insurance for all Americans. We’re the only industrialized country in the world without a single-payer health care system. The “socialism” argument looks silly, considering the $700 billion bail-out our Republican President is proposing for Wall Street.

  12. I agree about the bailout. And there is plenty of blame to go around (Repubs and Dems) for this mess we are in. I read somewhere that it amounts to about $2,000.00 for every man, woman, and child in the country. I say give me my 8 grand and I’ll take my chances.

    Why should I care anyway….my house is financed with a traditional mortgage with a 70/30 debt to equity ratio, neither of my vehicles are over colateralized, and to top it all off, I have a fairly secure job that comes with health insurance.

    Perhaps I could be a little more compassionate. Thanks for providing me with some different perspectives on things besides my own. I gotta stop listening to RUSH…..Limbaugh, not the band.

  13. I was about to say… No one can deny the greatness of “Tom Sawyer.”

    Seriously though, Limbaugh is a comedian with a really narrow-minded political agenda. I understand why people listen to him (and even why people on Cenla Antics mimic him), but I’ve never believed he should be taken seriously.

    Just today, Limbaugh repeated a ridiculous and patently absurd lie that Obama isn’t an “African-American,” because his father was from the Middle East. Problem is: Obama’s father is from Kenya– not exactly the Middle East.

    Typical Limbaugh: Broadcasting ignorance in order to stoke paranoia, irrational fear, and bigotry.

    I prefer NPR.

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