The Rip

All last week the media were doing their year-after-Katrina stories. Whose fault was everything? What have we learned? I'm reading this stuff, and it occurs to me I'm not really interested in group lessons. What have I learned? What do I do, here in Dallas, Texas, next time this rolls around?

By this, I mean Katrina, but I also mean Rita--remember, the one we thought might hit here but all we got were Houston evacuees--along with September 11, the millennium and all the other doomsday scenarios that have passed through in the last half-decade.

I'm talking about two things. Yes, it's the big picture--government response, preparedness and all that. But it's the me picture too: What do I do at my house?

That's where things get bipolar. Of course some of these issues can only be addressed by government, but I'm sure as hell not going to wait around for the government to do it.

I talked to Steve Torres, who's retired from the Dallas Police Department and does a lot of private security. He went into Katrina-land a couple days after the storm to do various kinds of work for clients. I asked him what people should have done differently there.

He said that, speaking as ex-law enforcement, he would have to say they should have listened to the authorities. "Obviously they should have listened to their political leaders saying, 'Y'all need to get out of here,' and everybody should have moved and forget about where you're living. Save your butt."

So then I asked him what he would do. What if the emergency, whatever type or flavor it might be, were aimed at his house here in Dallas? He didn't miss a beat.

"If anything, I would evacuate my family, let's say. But to protect my property and everything, I think I would be dumb enough to stay."

He told me about going into Biloxi a few days after the storm: "We were driving through some of the neighborhoods, and there was hardly anything left. But at some of the structures that still remained, people had put signs up, 'Looters will be shot.' And the bottom line was they meant it."

So with his law enforcement hat on he thinks everybody ought to get a move on when they're told. But with his pj's on, he's going to have one of those signs out front, and you better believe it.

I don't see any hypocrisy in that at all. If anything, it illuminates the very real fault line between the public and private aspects of disaster, of dealing with bad luck and getting your life together again afterward.

I talked to Kirk Prest, a guy I met in Venice, Louisiana, several years ago when I was down there fishing. Venice is a tiny community 20 miles southeast of New Orleans, way out toward the tip of the peninsula where the Mississippi pours into the Gulf of Mexico.

About 12 miles offshore the brown turbid waters of the Mississippi collide with the cobalt blue of the Gulf, forming a hard border between the two called "the rip," just as if someone had drawn a line across the ocean with a Magic Marker. Predator fish lurk in the brown water and lunge at prey passing by in the blue.

I went down there with Captain Steve Cornett to "fish the rip," dragging lures for miles along the line of demarcation. Cornett kept his boat in a tidy new metal boat storage building owned by Prest, a budding young entrepreneur in Venice.

Some of the tiny towns on that peninsula were just about scraped off the face of the earth by Katrina, and Venice didn't fare much better. Prest's business, called Fin & Feather Cabins and Boat Storage, was destroyed.

Prest puts things on two sides of a line too. On the one hand, he told me, he and his South Louisiana forebears have lamented for decades that the government has allowed the protective coastal barrier islands to erode and gradually disappear instead of using government money and muscle to promote coastal restoration.

"Where the government has failed, I think, is that they have an obligation, as we are Americans, to protect our homeland, just like we're protecting our homeland on foreign soil.

"I think the federal government has an obligation to protect our coastal land, whether it be here, in California or anywhere. That's where they have failed, and that goes back to the coastal restoration thing."

But Prest has already rebuilt 70 percent of his business, none of which was done for him by anybody from the government. He dug in with his own two hands and made it happen.

"A person needs to take it upon himself and get going again," he said. "There's plenty of jobs around here to be had. If someone right now is giving the line that they don't have a job, it's because they don't want to work.

"There's so much work in the city [New Orleans], from flipping hamburgers or a chef in a restaurant to construction work. You name it, and it's there.

"As far as a person having to take it upon themselves to get going again, I don't believe that the government has responsibility. In the beginning they do, but I don't think they need to continue to support a person after a disaster. There needs to be a timeline on that."

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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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze