Our own Katrina

T.A. Barnhart

I was watching the "Jazz at Lincoln Hall" benefit for Hurricane Katrina relief Saturday night, and some of the speakers -- Danny Glover and Harry Belefonte in particular -- got me thinking in a new direction.  It's important that we help the people in Louisiana and Mississippi recover from this tragedy; that's just what we have to do as compassionate people.  But we have our own state to care for as well, and, the current tragedy aside, we are not doing much better than either of those states.  In fact, given the resources that will be poured into that region, we are likely to fall behind them.  The economy and its so-called recovery is about to go south, in more ways than one; and while billions may go to New Orleans and Gulfport, I'm afraid Corvallis and most of the rest of Oregon will pay for that aid by seeing potential investment, both private and public, being turned away to the south.

I moved to Corvallis in December 2001.  In Portland, I had had no trouble getting work.  In Corvallis, I found nothing.  In four months, I got one day of temp work and several pointless interviews.  For any job I applied, there were dozens of suitably qualified applicants, and by "suitably" I mean the jobs were no great challenges.  But they were jobs, and jobs in 2001 and 2002 were among the rarest commodities in towns like Corvallis.  Even jobs that would normally be thought of as part-time or for college kids were being chased by people looking to support a family.  I learned the hard realities of the economy in non-Portland Oregon.  When I finally did get a job, a twenty-month term position as an admin with the Forest Service, it was far below my abilities and allowed me to live hand-to-mouth for almost two years.

Last year was worse, with my unemployment benefits used up and being forced to commute daily to Portland for four months, the only job I could get.  I was told the economy was recovering, but you would have gotten no agreement from me on that.  And for the past year, watching my older son try to find a job in Corvallis or Eugene, I was wondering where this great recovery was actually taking place. 

So Saturday night I began thinking about why Katrina was so tragic and how, here in Oregon, we probably share many of the societal and political problems that let Katrina happen.  I started thinking in particular about the role of racism, belatedly, yes, like too many white people.  I knew that those who died in New Orleans were the "lower" classes and/or non-white, that they had few resources to provide for themselves when disaster struck.  On the other hand,  If, for example, a tsunami were to approach the Oregon coast, a very real danger, everyone, rich and poor, would hear the sirens.  Everyone but the sickest could, at the very least, simply walk east and head up the hills to escape -- I certainly hope so.  And then what?  If a tsunami wiped out two hundred miles of Oregon coastline, killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless (or vacation homeless), who would these people be and what would be their fate?

We don't want to find ourselves in the position of Louisiana, our poor, our sick, the outcasts among us being thrown as sacrifices before the "wrath" of nature.  We don't want the world looking at our tragedies and noting that racisim and economic standing were the deciding factors in who lived and died, who suffered inconvience and who suffered true tragedy.  We don't want the world asking questions about why we did nothing to prepare for events that we knew would happen -- and then coming to the conclusion that we didn't really care because those who would suffer simply did not matter.

We Oregonians have an image of ourselves as better than places like Louisiana and Mississippi.  We don't see ourselves as racist, as backwards, as full of ignorant hicks and ante-bellum holdouts and the whole range of stereotypes and prejudices people in the North and West hold about the South.  We are not any better than these places, of course, and in too many ways we are worse.  We are worse for all those stereotypes that blind us to our own failings, especially in the area of racism.  We are a stratified state, but we say very little about this.  Our divisions in terms of education, culture, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and economic placement are vast and growing.  We need to get off our self-erected pedestals of ideological superiority and deal immediately with our multitude of issues, not on the basis of simply how little money we have but how many terrible divisions we have in this state.

Once we take notice of our divisions, of course, we can begin to turn these into differences, which is the first step towards understanding them as diversity -- and diversity, unlike difference and division, is a resource.  This is the great lesson we in Oregon must take from Katrina.  We may suffer a terrible earthquate at some point, or a tsunami or maybe a flood that makes 1996 look like a puddle.  But we can't count on it.  We can, however, count on what I hope we will agree on widely is diversity -- a state full of differences that lead first to need and then to opportunity and finally to action.  We may be no different that the stereotypical South in many tangible ways right now, but we don't have to remain that way.  We can change; we can become better.  If we don't, we shall suffer just as badly, and it won't take a preventable natural disaster to do it.  The indifference of bigotry will make us our own Katrina.

  • (Show?)

    I disagree with the premise that the lack of response to Katrina is about racism.

    I believe what we witnessed was classism. Those in the poverty class of Louisiana happen to be, in large part, black.

    Here in Oregon if there were a natural disaster of such epic scale as Katrina, those who live in poverty here would suffer much the same fate, as the author notes. But the cameras would be capturing a lot more white and Hispanic faces. It has to do with poverty, not race.

  • C2TBF (unverified)

    Wow. What a fantastic column - I usually come to blueoregon to deride the liberal bloggers, but this one really hits the mark. Those who care about Oregon should take this to heart and start thinking about creating a more business-friendly environment.

  • LT (unverified)

    A more business friendly environment? What--no regulation at all, twice the corporate tax cuts? Repealing the voter passed min. wage measure because only management and profits are important in this state? How many in management have actually done the work their employees do? (That was a fashion for awhile--managers spending the day along with workers to find out what the work was actually like.)

    Any job applicant can tell you that the interview response of less than 2 weeks (or any response to a job interview much less an application) is rare.

    As in the people who advertise and have initial interviews for new places of business not yet open (building not yet completed, etc). If this state is not "business friendly", why are new businesses opening up?

    Perhaps C2TBF has a secure job. Maybe a few months ago the LSI employees thought the same thing.

  • DramaSoul (unverified)

    Wow. I was thinking, as I watched the disaster unfolding on my television, that it was both racism and classism and there but by the grace of G*D go I. I have been looking around Portland as I go about my business and wondering what, specifically, could I do? How can I help? I know that recently my son and I attended a gathering of Muslim and Jewish youth in what I hope is the beginning of continued dialogue. What else can I do? I am open to suggestion!

  • LT (unverified)

    Two things anyone can do: 1) Convey this message as your own belief: Wow. I was thinking, as I watched the disaster unfolding on my television, that it was both racism and classism and there but by the grace of G*D go I.

    2)If you know anyone unemployed or underemployed (for example someone over 50 who was laid off and has been unemployed for over a year or a college grad working in retail because that was the only job they could find) share that knowledge with others. I have learned there are those who still think the unemployed are lazy although I know Republicans who are aware of the large number of unemployed and underemployed in this state thru no fault of their own.

    Public discussion of the above counterdicts the propaganda of the "worthwhile people qualify for tax cuts" mentality.

  • engineer (unverified)

    TAB says "We may suffer a terrible earthquate at some point, or a tsunami or maybe a flood that makes 1996 look like a puddle. But we can't count on it."
    Wrong-we can count on it happening. It's just a matter of time until we experience one of the above mentioned events occurring.

  • Karl (unverified)

    I don't believe there's been any "recovery" for anyone except CEOs and bush cronies. I'm a 30 plus year crafts person who hitched his economic wagon to the middle class. The middle class is disappearing fast. 2001 was my last good year. Each year has been a little worse since. I am not alone. ALL the people I talk to at the shows I attend have the same story. People just don't have money for non-necessities any more. It's the people in the middle and at the bottom who spend money when they have it. When they don't, the economy freezes up.

  • A. Citizen (unverified)

    I don't think Mr. Barnhart fully grasps either the reality of the recent hurricanes along the Gulf Coast or the far-reaching ramifications their aftermath and fallout will be bringing to the entire country for quite some time to come.

    This is a wake-up call to suburbia. Most Americans have no idea how many oil rigs and refineries are along the Gulf, how vital the Port of New Orleans is to this country's shipping & supply network. Coupled with our situation in Iraq right now, in addition to climbing gas prices at the pump, we will be seeing related increases in everything across the board from a bag of groceries to a gallon of water.

    One of our major cities has been completely wiped out. Despite what Ray Nagan may say, for all practical purposes New Orleans no longer exists. It is now a toxic swamp and will be for some time along with large parts of Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. Close to a million people are now newly homeless, jobless & city-less with nowhere to go but - somewhere else ...like Oregon.

    Everyone wants to help their neighbors and the less fortunate, but if we look back to the "Grapes Of Wrath" dustbowl crisis of the Depression, history will remind us that it doesn't take very long before neighbors & victims become "refugees" and "okies" and unwanted due to "the manger being full".

    If one wants to place blame, there's plenty to go around across the board. Bureaucratic ineptitude, poor planning and corruption of funds and management on all levels are far more to blame than blanket scapegoats such as racism. It's really nothing more than the law of the jungle.

    The sad truth is that what we like to think of as "civilization" with all our lofty theoretical ideology and philosophy is really only about a tank of gas, a bag of ice and a flushing toilet away from the Stone Age and survival of the fittest.

    Anyone that thinks the government or their neighbors in the less fortunate sections of town are going to help them when society starts to break down would do well to invest in a well-stocked emergency kit, a propane generator and a 12 gauge riot shotgun.

    We are on the edge of a New Depression the likes of which this country has never seen, and due to NAFTA, Walmart and the destruction and outsourcing of America's manufacturing and IT industries, we may be seeing the end of the United States as we know it.

    Those who think the aftermath of this is going to go away and that we'll just rebuild and everything will be okay are in for a very rude awakening. The dung has hit the fan.

    I wonder how charitable Mr. Barnhart will feel when a few hundred new "refugees" from New Orleans 9th ward show up in Corvallis knocking on his door with their hand out? It will be interesting to see how he feels about all this a few months from now when the reality of the fallout begins to bite into his own back pocket and front porch.

    Only the strong survive,

    A. Citizen


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