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.