I happened to be present in Khao-I-Dang Camp, on the Thai/Cambodia border, the day it opened to refugees from Pol Pot’s terror: Thanksgiving Day, 1979. It was an empty field on that day, with tired figures who had been trudging through mine fields arriving with all their belongings in bundles on their heads, to line up to receive inoculations and malaria prophylaxis.
The camp was a bamboo and blue tarp tent city for 200,000 people not long afterwards. We were a Bay Area medical team, sponsored by International Rescue Committee, and funded by KRON and the San Francisco Chronicle, and we staffed and supplied a grass roofed pediatric hospital in the camp for a few years, during the time it took the refugees to reconnect with surviving family, and find permanent homes, either in third countries or by being repatriated back to Cambodia.
In the last day or so, since what now will likely be called simply “The Hurricane,” I have been talking by phone and e-mail to some of these same relief workers, many of whom (like me) admit to have been spending their days yelling at their TV sets in horror at what we are seeing in New Orleans.
We have all been screaming: “If the media got in there, other vehicles could be in there! Where are the fuel trucks, the water tankers, the busses, trucks, and airplanes to take people out?” We all thought, that first day, that there would be boats, and portable hospitals, and out of area police, fire, rescue, military and civilian volunteers.
We former relief people thought that there would be lists for the evacuees to sign (name, home address, family members, out of state contact, a photo, who’s missing) when someone entered a shelter. (One person with a notebook can do a lot/a computer is better/a digital camera is great).
And where are the radios/walkie talkies/satellite phones that work when land lines and cell phones fail, so that the people who are helping can know what is going on, and can summon help? Where are the “walking records” for medical situations, the tracing procedures for lost family members? It all takes time, but it should start right away.
Normally, in an international disaster, international relief organizations, trained and supplied to do this kind of work, would be sent in immediately. But we are not getting international help with this emergency. For one thing, we would need to ask for it. It may be bravado on the part of the president, or simply a matter of his being clueless, but the implication (in his speech today) that other countries are “welcome to send money ... but we can take care of this,” is a big problem.
Now that everything to do with emergencies in our country—from terrorism to earthquakes to immigration processing—is under one big umbrella called Homeland Security, one suspects that there is also a concern about foreigners getting into our country, and about what they might do.
Our president is afraid to relinquish control. So 9/11 has come to Louisiana and Mississippi, to tell our people that they must wait for help until we Americans can re-invent the wheel.
On Thursday we were for the first time seeing signs of movement, which was not soon enough for so very many people, sadly. The Red Cross was no longer saying “just send money,” and was taking names and numbers and calling back potential volunteers (the number to call is (408) 577-1000, by the way).
In the meantime, however, we have lost that most valuable of resources: time. We cannot easily undo the mess that has happened. In some areas, like the Convention Center, things are apparently falling apart completely. There are, incredibly (they say on my TV) hospital evacuations that are taking place under sniper fire. No use crying over spilt levees, I guess (or at least this is not the moment), but to quote the movie, Animal House, our government seems to be saying to the people, “Hey, you screwed up. You trusted us!”
As the flood waters recede (at least where they can, in those places that weren’t built in a hole) so must our preconceptions about how together we are as a nation. Our expectations about the “good things in life”—the things that are really just extras—need adjustment as well.
We can do this; we can scale back. There are few Americans who could not easily get by with half of what they have right now: half the shoes they own, half the energy they consume, half the desserts they eat, half the rooms they live in. Thousands of Americans have more than one home, and assuming that they cannot be in two places at once, at least half the time one of those homes is empty. There are places where families can live, and can send their kids to school, and can find community to help them with jobs and other needs, at least for awhile.
The Houston Astrodome (are they kidding?) can only be temporary. It is easy to complain, to second guess, and I am not there on the ground to see what is happening first hand. The media (our new “aid workers,” it seems) are doing a good job of showing us how bad it really it, however, while they are helping people as they go. The people who are on the scene (“in the field,” in relief parlance) are doing superhuman work. God bless them.
The starving Cambodian survivors we worked with in ‘79 to ‘83 were a population coming from the hell of Pol Pot’s Kampuchea, and as a result, anything was better than that. Our new refugees from Louisiana and Mississippi (now we are supposed to call them ‘displaced persons’) on the other hand, are people used to the American lifestyle, which even at lower economic levels has larger expectations than that. It makes what is offered—MREs, bottles of water, a roof but not a bed—seem paltry by comparison. These are good people, who may not be getting even this, however.
This is fixable. We need to have a giant American potluck supper, symbolically speaking. Our churches, schools, YMCAs, youth centers and neighborhoods need to get together whatever resources we have to share, so that all of our people can enjoy the surplus that this nation has in its hands. We need to be telling people what they can do to help. And the government needs to give help directly to the affected people.
That’s what they, and we, pay taxes for. This kind of help will not trickle down.
There are plenty of people who are angry; some are violent. If they want to do something really useful, though, instead of threatening their fellow New Orleans citizens, they should be standing up to our president, and forcing him to sign the Kyoto Accords. Maybe if he had done so, it might not be so bad for so many today. As for the future, we can only hope.
People wonder, I’m sure, what this emergency would have looked like if we still had the $200 billion dollars (or whatever astronomical number it is) that we have spent in the wars, so we could send it down to our fellow citizens in the South. Maybe each one of them, who has lost a loved one in the last few days, could get a ‘settlement’ like the one that came to the survivors of those lost on 9/11.
Some may wonder why the National Guard needs to be overseas, if it is, indeed a National Guard. And they may be thinking that it seems like there really ought to be a lot of temporary living space available in all those military bases they were talking about closing last week. Most importantly, however, the survivors and victims themselves may be wondering why they have to pay their own way out of this, rent their own rooms, walk out of the deep water of disaster with their babies on their backs, and why they have to wait for volunteers and for donations.
I wonder, too.