The words struck with such intensity because of their complete lack of compassion! “It would be better if the storm hit Cuba than Florida.” My fellow usher explained that she had a winter home in Florida and worried as the hurricane season neared its peak. Those were the words uttered by a person with whom I served as an usher at a local theater company. She was referring to Hurricane Gustav, as it emerged off of Jamaica and put the southwest coast of Cuba and the Gulf Coast of the U.S. in its sights. The memory of Katrina is still vivid in the minds of anyone who has had to deal with the human misery and devastation of a powerful hurricane, so I was at a loss to explain the total lack of sensitivity.
I thought that many could, and would, make the same pronouncement. Anybody but us: anyone but those anointed from some imaginary celestial high place. No matter that others have the same blood running through their veins and struggle with the vagaries of a radically changed environment like legions of people around the globe, irrespective of the political system in which they live.
Having lived through the hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005 in Florida, and worked as a crisis counselor there during one of those seasons, I came with a different perspective of what it means to have lives ruined by powerful tropical cyclones.
With a background in counseling, I went to work for the State of Florida in a F.E.M.A.-funded program named Project H.O.P.E. (Helping Our People in Emergencies) in 2005 and 2006, just after Hurricane Wilma (a category 3 storm) struck the state. Wilma was far, far less destructive than Katrina (a category 5 storm), but nonetheless it changed the lives of many for the worse. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s program was a travesty! I traveled with teams of fellow crisis counselors in Palm Beach County speaking to people whose lives and property had been damaged by the storm. The vast majority of those I worked with had no backgrounds in counseling, and despite a mandate by F.E.M.A. that supervisors in the program have counseling backgrounds, only a tiny majority had any formal training. The Florida Sun Sentinel did series of articles about the $23 million program and found it riddled with the same incompetence and lack of accountability as other relief efforts overseen by F.E.M.A.
Traveling to towns in south-central Florida such as Belle Glade and Pahokee, I was left speechless by the devastation poor people living in trailer parks had suffered from the storm. Whole roofs and sides of trailers had been sheared away, leaving families exposed to the elements and the invasive and pervasive attack of mold spores that sickened many, including scores of children. F.E.M.A. did provide money for some of the damage that I saw, but there was never enough to make the lives that had been so strained whole again.
As the teams from H.O.P.E. scoured the area, there was almost nothing we could do to ameliorate the suffering and loss of people we met. About the best that crisis counseling teams could do was talk, and that didn’t solve any of the material needs of the people we met. Again and again the agencies that we contacted that were supposed to offer help with repairs and materials in the region did not follow through to deliver promised assistance. Often well-intentioned, these private agencies ran out of money soon after hitting the ground in the area and had nothing left with which to help people.
It was alarming to listen to the person in the comfort of a theater voice her disdain for those in the path of destruction. I had seen firsthand the horror that could be foisted on people without distinction for the geographical region one inhabited, and particularly on those without money.
HOWARD LISNOFF is an educator and freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org