Open letter to students and the TCU community

I’m sure you have all been following the disaster news from New Orleans. I have watched and read everything I could and have come away in despair, confusion, comparing it to Sept. 9/11, sensing the differences and the similarities, struggling with the enormity of the losses, angry at times, and looking for signs of hope and recovery. Of course, my sociological brain also constantly processes the issues of race, class, politics and family dynamics. My husband Charles and I rolled up our sleeves on Saturday and went to work buying and hauling supplies to local shelters. There are about 15,000 victims of the hurricane here in the Fort Worth area.I spent my usual Sunday morning with The New York Times and felt worse and worse as the morning wore on.

The news seemed too abstract and limited. I appreciated the facts – particularly on the different populations and how they were affected (by Hurricane Katrina). But I had an overwhelming sense that readers and viewers would not be able to understand this disaster from the coverage I had read.

The pictures of flooded streets and even pictures of individuals being plucked from the waters by dedicated rescue workers seemed limited. It was so different from Sept. 11, which was so localized and so many people immediately could talk about their experiences and those of people they knew.

This disaster area is the size of Great Britain. Imagine all of Great Britain being flooded and people needing rescue. The number of people immediately affected is many times that of Sept. 11. The economic costs are predicted to be at least five times as great. Sept. 11 cost $20 billion and this will cost $100 billion at least. Lives lost may exceed Sept. ll by the thousands, and many will never be found. People will continue to die for weeks, months and years.

I felt a great coming-together in the country after Sept. 11. I see pockets of that now.

Donations to the Red Cross as of Tuesday morning were more than $500 million, more than what was given in the first 10 days after Sept. 11. But these victims do not have the voice that the Sept. ll victims had. They are not our co-workers or neighbors. We don’t really understand their lives and their choices, and I fear that they will not get the same level of attention from the media, politicians and communities of help in the long run.

Race and class made a huge difference between the two disasters.

New Orleans was 67.3 percent black and 27 percent of the population lived below the poverty line.

Most whites and those with more money left early in their cars. They had places to go and a means to get there. They suffered loss of life, homes and jobs, as did all, but they are largely being taken care of by friends and family. They also have their credit cards, bank accounts and possibly jobs to tide them over.

Why didn’t others leave?

Most had lived in New Orleans all their lives. Some had never been anywhere else. They didn’t have the money or the cars. They were sick. They had families and limited property that they knew they could not hold onto if they left. Some probably discounted or distrusted the warnings and those who brought them. This was a community used to taking care of each other and not counting on others’ help – a proud, stubborn, resourceful, unprepared group. They had lived, loved and survived in New Orleans before and expected to do it again. I don’t blame them. Probably I would have left early, but then I have had a very different life and could resettle elsewhere.

When did people know the extent of the devastation? When should help have been sent? How? Was it a race or class issue? Sociologists and others will study this for years. Politicians will debate and argue about preparations and response. All of that was also done after Sept. ll. And, perhaps, we will learn some things that will help in the future. I hope that people will not ignore the race and class issues or the attention we give to those who suffer in our own country.

But I come back again and again to that fact that in the technological age, these people have little voice. We are not yet able to understand the total devastation and the impact on the social fabric of the community. I am cautiously hopeful for and definitely respectful of a population that has suffered so much – so much that, tragically, most of us will never be able to comprehend. I suspect that the resilient community of New Orleans will rebuild in time and reclaim their great cultural enclave, but we have to help.

Jean Giles-Sims, TCU Professor of Sociology