Monday, May 3, 2010

Texas becomes main underground railroad for New Orleans’ citizens in search of a new home

A happy boat ride for flood victims
Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levees ripped open the underbelly of poverty in the Big Easy, exposing its insides to the world. It was a rawness that politicians fail talk about when they are making pretty speeches to get elected or reelected. The world was watching, observing the treatment of African Americans in dire stress, many of them just minutes away from death.

Naked, raw poverty has a way of marring pretty picture, empty words, and a president that observed the mean spirited disaster while flying over the watery ruins in Air Force One a few days later. President George Bush cut short his vacation at his Crawford, Texas ranch after an aide produced a video of the disaster, showing it to Bush.

Bush's pretend concern was too late. Hurricane Katrina revealed in an unapologetic way that something is terribly amiss in the United  States of America, the land of plenty. But the questions have be asked: How can this kind of poverty exist in a country as rich as America?How can Americans be treated like refugees standing on roofs, signaling and screaming for help after such a full scale disaster?

America is standing naked. Where can she hide her shame and hypocrisy?

From the beginning  I watched Mother Nature at work, uncaring about who had the misfortune of getting in her way. I watched destruction unfold in disbelief. I had to ask myself repeatedly: Am I watching a Third World catastrophe, where lifeless, face down bodies are floating freely among the living in streets that have turned into small rivers in New Orleans? 

No one, as they watched bodies floating by, had time to add more panic to their already traumatized minds. They had to think straight ahead or run the risk of not surviving themselves. In Rwanda, bodies floated down rivers instead of streets. No time for panic there either. There was no slow responding FEMA coming to their rescue. The Rwandans were on their own. I watched that violent, man made act of genocide on the evening news.

Here in America, FEMA failed the Gulf Coast states because of bureaucratic incompetence, leaving every body to wonder: Whose in charge? Whose on first base? Whose on second base? I can answer those questions with confidence: No one. The in-charge people are still lost in left field; befuddled and unable to tell which way is up, one month later.


Intellectually, I know that Hurricane Katrina did not selectively discriminate, choose to skip over wealthy neighborhoods just to attack communities where less salaried people lived. But Mother Nature, in her anger, is noted for going into a tirade resembling a scorned woman, paving a new road to purgatory for anyone who gets in her way.

New Orleans, unlike the other destroyed states, was all about levees that everyone knew were going to crumble, subsequently releasing flood waters that the Big Easy could not adequately swallow. Death and destruction rode piggy back wherever the raging waters rushed. I heard the media liken the watery destruction to the flood in the Bible, but I did not hear the media say that God was sending Noah to man an Ark to safety.


As I watched African Americans treading the flood waters in New Orleans, my mind shot back to the past; to a time that I have often read about, and have seen brutally depicted in movies and documentaries. In true reality, the media brought the nonstop scenes into our living rooms. Some of them did a great job.

The flood victims resembled hundreds of slaves attempting to escape to the North, heading to freedom and a better life. This time around there was no secret Underground Railroad, and each head of household had to take on the role of Harriet Tubman in order to save their own lives, and the lives of their loved ones.

The Underground Railroad was not an actual railroad operating underground. It was a secret network of safe houses, where escaping slaves were warmly greeted, given shelter, food and clothing before making their way North. In the instance of Katrina, Texas found itself a North stand-in, becoming a temporary safe haven for those running away from the flood.

Ironically, when the media talked to African Americans who had “escaped” to Texas and other states, many of them said they had lost everything they owned, and they had no plans to return to New Orleans. Many of them said they had fallen in love with Texas, and the generosity of Texans, who readily showed concern for their well-being and recovery.

President Bush in Air Force One, observing Katrina
Perhaps their reluctance to return hinges on the fact that New Orleans, where the population is (was) 67 percent African American, is one of the poorest states in the U.S. Almost 30 percent of its citizens live below the poverty line. Ten other states in the U.S. are also sitting on the porch of extreme poverty. The majority populations in these states are White.


I know there are African Americans who say they cannot relate to the plight of former slaves in America. They are living in a different time, where there is a different mind-set, different opportunities and the sweet feel of freedom. If African Americans, strapped to the bottom rung of the economic ladder, would seriously commit to reading their history, coupling that discovery with critical thinking, analyzing where the slaves were, and where they are as the 21st century descendants of slaves, they would be shocked at the comparing results.

I think they will either make serious changes in their lives, or they will continue to live in a fool’s paradise, unable to understand that when one door closes, another door opens, as did the Big Easy flood victims. There is a reason many of the evacuees are saying they are not returning to New Orleans. Texas is their new home. Is this their chance to escape extreme poverty? Yes.

When the rebuilding commences in New Orleans, big questions will have to be answered: How much will it cost to live in the new Big Easy? Will the haves buy out the have-nots? Will the returning poor be scattered throughout the city, or will they be thrown back into the same poverty stacked neighborhoods? We will have to wait and see.

That’s the difference between then and now. African Americans out of New Orleans will have to decide for themselves if the glass of opportunity is completely empty or half full. Will they pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or by flimsy shoe strings that are subject to breaking? We will have to wait and see.

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