Sunday, September 11, 2005

THE WORST NATURAL DISASTER in U.S. history is triggering a population displacement of historic proportions. The consequences for state and local services, schools, jobs, public health, and social relations is potentially enormous, and obviously hard to predict. There hasn't been a human displacement this significant since the Dust Bowl, and before that, the Civil War.

... Federal officials who are guiding the evacuation say 400,000 to upwards of one million people have been displaced from ruined homes, mainly in the New Orleans metropolitan area.

Texas has taken in more than 230,000 people, according to Gov. Rick Perry. But others are scattered across the United States, airlifted from a city that is nine feet below sea level to mile-high shelters in Colorado, to desert mesas in New Mexico, piney woods in Arkansas, flatlands in Oklahoma, the breezy shore of Cape Cod and the beige-colored Wasatch Mountain front in Utah.

Many say they will never go back, vowing to build new lives in strange lands, marked forever by the storm that forced their exodus. They seem dazed and disconnected, though happy to be alive, to be breathing clean air, to be dry. Others say they still feel utterly lost, uprooted from all that is familiar, desperate to find a missing brother or aunt.

The pastor of a local church that is helping the newcomers with food and other needs compared what's happening to the biblical Exodus.

"This is almost like the exodus of Moses," [the Rev. Calvin Robinson]said. "These people have left everything behind. Their friends and relatives are far away. Most of what they had is gone forever. They feel abandoned by the government, but we are trying to make them feel at home."

This is where federal help can and will make the difference. What happens in the next weeks, months, and years can either be a positive and successful melding of two (at minimum) very different ethnic and cultural groups; or it can become a disaster of hatred and violence. It all depends on what the White House and Congress do to help ease the strain on local services. Obviously that means money, and probably a lot of it. State and local governments are strapped as it is; they are not going to be able to absorb so many additional people without assistance.

So when Laura Bush says, "This [meaning poverty] is what we have to address in this country," as she defends her husband from widespread charges that he does not like or care about black or poor people, this is where George W. Bush will need to put his money where his wife's mouth is. If he cares about the misery and inequality that poverty leads to, he will do everything he can to make sure that does not happen in places like Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado. Judging by his executive order suspending the prevailing wage rules of the Davis-Bacon Act, he is not off to a good start.

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