Sunday, September 04, 2005

Cities of Refuge, Cities of Hope

Our daughter reported Friday that another kid from Louisiana showed up to enroll at her middle school in southwest Houston, another small drop in a steady trickle that began a couple of days earlier and which we understand has turned into a steady, building flow at other local schools. The girl was shy and looked a little scared. She clasped her sides and stood stiffly when an assistant principal brought her around and introduced her to our daughter’s class. She related that her house had been “totally ruined” by the hurricane.

We can’t begin to understand how our daughter’s new classmate feels, but we know how we’d feel: Last Thursday or Friday she was in her home, in her school, in her city, living her life, and a week later her family had fled that home, most likely with little or nothing to go back to, and suddenly she was standing before strange kids in a strange classroom in a strange city. Her new home, for now.

Multiply that little girl’s story by 100,000---the number of evacuees that Mayor Bill White estimates are in Houston (is that really possible?)---and it’s clear that New Orleans won’t be the only large American city transformed by Hurricane Katrina. In the coming weeks we want to keep this little girl in mind, her and all the other children housed at the Astrodome and the Brown Center and in hotels and homes and other locations across our city, as the inevitable but justifiable concerns about the costs of our hospitality---both to the public purse, and in the stresses to the social fabric---are raised and argued. We know that County Commissioner Steve Radack is trying to score a few quick political baskets at the expense of White and County Judge Robert Eckels, but what he’s saying about extending our hearts but thinking with our heads is worth heeding. Unlike all the instant armchair experts we’re reading and hearing everywhere we turn---the bloggers, the columnists, the editorialists, the TV and radio talkers, all high and dry and safe at home or work---we at Slampo’s Place don’t always put our faith in the benevolence and competence of government, nor do we believe in the ultimate perfectibility of man (or evacuation plans for a million-plus people).

In other words, we hope that much finer minds than ours are thinking ahead, looking down the road, running through the potential scenarios, such as what kind of psychological toll living in domed stadium for 2 or 3 weeks (months?) will take. We hope, then we remember Hurricane Alicia and the aftermath of Alicia, when the city of Houston, in one of the great misguided affirmative actions in the history of affirmative action, hired the reverend with the one pick-up to dispose of the debris. You remember that, don’t you? (In retrospect, we wonder how Kathy Whitmire survived that upcoming election.)

For instance: The initiatives by the state of Texas and the Houston school district to open our schools to evacuee kids are great. Getting them in school should be a priority. But at the campus level in HISD there’s a palpable apprehension about an impending deluge of the school system. This probably isn’t news to anyone, but schools in some parts of the city are already overcrowded. We understand HISD has been considering reopening some recently shuttered schools, or locating a temporary facility at or near the Astrodome. The latter would seem to make the best sense, especially when it comes to transportation and delivery of the services many of these kids wll need. And somebody, at the federal level, needs to sit up and slash some of the bullshit red tape. It's’s been pointed out to us that many students from New Orleans and elsewhere were taking advantage of the special education services they’re entitled to by federal law, yet it’s very unlikely that their school records will be quickly forthcoming to Houston, most likely because those school records don’t exist anymore, thus necessitating a new, costly and time-consuming round of assessments and evaluations here. And what about the teachers for these kids? Hopefully, displaced educators from Louisiana will be allowed to step into Houston classrooms without having to meet the silly certification requirements. Just get 'er done, as that blue-collar comedian guy says.

We detect a lot of wariness out in Houston, accompanied by almost overwhelming urge to help (that’s one of the advertised virtues of our city that happens to be true---its residents do indeed have big hearts). We were a mute party to a conversation last week between two African-American women---both with Louisiana roots, and one of whom has blood relatives in six families in Slidell who have been displaced---about the differences in “culture” between their high-schoolers and kids who might be coming from New Orleans’ 9th Ward, and they weren’t making this observation in a derogatory way, either. One of the women lives hard by the Medical Center, and she noted, without annoyance, that the traffic in the Astrodome area was horrendous Friday morning and caused her to be late to work. Of course, the conversation ended with one woman saying she was going to volunteer at the Dome on Saturday, and the other reporting that she was pushing her church to open to refugees the community center it recently built with the city’s help. Not saints, just average people, extending their hearts, thinking with their heads.

East of Houston, our mother reports that her town of about 110,000 is inundated with evacuees. The coliseum is at capacity, traffic is gridlocked. Her beauty parlor was overrun with women from New Orleans at week’s end, as was her branch of the public library, where many people had gone just to sit some place quiet and read the news they had lived. Reassuringly, some kids were seated at tables, finishing homework from textbooks. Many of the refugees were white, like the kids who’ve enrolled at my daughter’s school, and some were black, but they all looked middle-class. We mention this to point out that it’s not just poor African-Americans whose lives have been devastated, that there’s plenty of refugees out of the media eye who have the wherewithal to hold out in hotels or with friends, at least for a while … but for how long? Just dealing with your insurance company after something like this---it boggles the mind.

My mother also reported that there are lots of rumors and stories, unconfirmed, going around the town, as well as a free-floating and fairly widespread anger building against Bush---even in my mother’s small circles, where she usually counts herself as the only Democrat. We’re already sick of the finger-pointing, but who among wasn’t sitting in front of the TV Wednesday or Thursday and wondering why, in 2005 in the richest nation in the history of humankind, we couldn’t get some water and food and toilet paper to those people in front of the convention center or on the freeway overpass? And what was with that odd off-script crack Bush made in Mississippi about hoping to one day enjoy the view from Trent Lott’s rebuilt porch---while people were stewing and dying nearby in a pot of death and shit! And where’s Dick Cheney? I’m writing this late Saturday, and I can recall seeing neither hide nor hair of him since before the hurricane, and him a guy who likes to duck hunt down in south Louisiana. We’ve seen and heard plenty of and from Harry Connick Jr. and the LSU quarterback … but nothing from Cheney (!?).

And that reminds us that we saw Joel Osteen being interviewed on one of the Houston TV channels on Friday, and while we’ve previously confessed to liking the preacher and think he’s a decent sort, he’s obviously not someone equipped to grapple with questions that might be more than an inch deep. Osteen was asked the perennial--what would you say to the desolate and homeless who’ve been relocated to Houston and might be wondering why a supposedly benevolent God who wants you to drive a nice car and have a good dental care plan (we added the last part there) would allow such a disaster to happen----and he came off as downright callow. It appeared as if he hadn’t given it too much thought. Kind of not his thing, we suppose. The gist of his reply was that as Christians they just need to keep on believing, and hey, they should view all this as an opportunity for a new beginning. We guess he meant they should look at it as if Shell were transferring them from New Orleans to a better-paying job in Houston. Of course, these folks might have a lot more “junk” in their heads than the average Osteen congregant. Not a good answer, reverend.

Finally, as we mentioned above, we don’t always put our faith in the benevolence and competence of government, nor do we believe in the ultimate perfectibility of man (or evacuation plans for a million-plus people). Which is why, after the past week, we hope all law-abiding citizens take care to make a clean, well-functioning firearm, or two or three, part of their hurricane preparation kits. If you don’t, then you ain’t livin', as they say in Louisiana.

Used to say, we mean.

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