The Rip

When does an evacuee cease to be a guest and become a pain?

That brings it a little closer to home. For me, anyway.

Guy I know works with Katrina evacuees in Tarrant County. But people where he works have been instructed not to call them evacuees. They are all Katrina guests.

So one of them calls him up recently and reams him for some sort of service this individual has not received or has not received enough of or fast enough or whatever. At a point in the conversation, the caller reminds the guy, "I am a Katrina guest."

The guy loses it. He says, "Sir, you know, I'm sorry, but after a year do you really think you're still a guest?"

No kidding. That's longer than most people put up with their own blood relatives. There has to be some kind of timeline on being a guest, some sort of rip in the water, a point beyond which you are no longer in the river. Now you're out in the Gulf, and you need to start swimming. Vigorously.

When the Katrina evacuees were headed this way in caravans of buses, the city of Houston threw its arms open wide. But not Dallas. Mayor Laura Miller and police Chief David Kunkle peeked out the door with a sandwich in one hand and a badge in the other. Kind of like, "Some of you can stay, but a whole lot of you have to keep on going."

Now who was right?

Wade Goodwyn, the National Public Radio correspondent who lives in Dallas, did a great story recently about Houston a year after Katrina. He cited all the kudos Houston gets from people for the generosity it showed New Orleans. But Goodwyn also cited the downside:

A quarter-million New Orleanians are still in Texas, half of them in Houston. Almost 60 percent are jobless, and 40 percent are living on household incomes of less than $12,000 a year. Goodwyn reported that murder rates spiked so high in some areas where the evacuees settled that the Houston police had to set up special beats for individual apartment buildings.

That's exactly what Miller and Kunkle predicted might happen here, and it has, but on a much smaller scale because they tempered their generosity about letting people in. Is there a kudo anywhere for semi-stinginess? Maybe there should be.

I asked Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher what she remembers most from the Katrina days and what she feels she learned. Keliher was right down there at Reunion Arena with her sleeves rolled up, pitching in to help not just as a government official but as a private person with a conscience. She and I talked for a while about it, but this particular scene sticks out in what she told me:

"I began getting phone calls from people who were willing to take in some of the evacuees," she said. "We went over ourselves to tell people at the convention center, 'You could move out of here and move out to one of these places where there are apartments or there are churches who are putting people up. They can take 200 people. Would you be interested in going?'

"Coming behind us were service providers who were interested in protecting their turf, and they were telling them, 'If you move out, you may not get any services.'

"And so people would say to us, 'No,' because then they were afraid to move."

Take a second and think about that. The message is: "We are here to help you. If you strike out on your own, you won't get our help."

And I know nobody says something like that out of meanness or because they don't want people to get better. It's just the kind of shortsighted bossiness that people fall into when they're stressed and trying to operate under difficult conditions.

But put yourself in the position of the evacuee. Which voice do you listen to? Whose help do you take, whose do you turn down?

For me, personally, that's the big lesson of all this stuff, from September 11 to Katrina to today. I have to know which side of the rip I'm on at any given moment. Maybe on Monday I need to step up as a citizen and pressure my government to do the right thing. But Tuesday night I may need to forget about the government and make myself one of those "looters will be shot" signs. And Wednesday morning I might need to go look for a job.

That's what this whole year-after-Katrina thing makes me think about. The line.

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