Katrina and Rita disinformation


Ilan Vardi

It first started before leaving from Montreal, when I heard people saying that the reason all the extremely poor people stayed in New Orleans is that they were waiting for the end of the month to get their welfrare cheques. That point certainly wasn't stressed in the US media.

Once on our trip, every motel in Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma, had evacuees staying there, their rooms being paid for by their insurance companies. Since the rooms were about $75 a night, and people were staying for at least a month, multiplying by hundreds of thousands of evacuees with insurance, one can start wondering at the future rising cost of insurance to pay for all of this.

Next, we overheard a Denny's waitress in Texarkana (on the Arkansas side of the street) saying that her sister in North Carolina was trying to get a job, but businesses wouldn't even look at applications unless they came from Louisiana evacuees.

On the positive side, at the motels we stayed at in Texas, there were volunteers every evening bringing and preparing food for the evacuees. This was especially true of the Motel in Huntsville, TX, which was harboring very poor evacuees whose housing was being paid for by the Red Cross. However, at this motel, I did note that some persons were telling the manager that they were suspecting drug related activities from evacuees. My wife also noted some racial tension when some poor black persons were speaking rather loudly at breakfast. However, there was absolutely no sign of racism among the much greater number of volunteers. Many of the volunteers were from Christian organisations, which confirmed what I always thought, which is that the lound money seeking Christian preachers on TV are a small vocal minority, while many devout Christians will actually spend their time and money helping others in need.

One thing that did annoy me was a big ad in the Huntsville paper about special offers from the local car dealership for Katrina evacuees. I'm fairly sure that the offers were genuine, but I am just as sure that these were just bait, and that once the people came in through his door, the car dealer would try to gouge them on expensive options.

The first signs of the exodus were in Huntsville, TX, on the afternoon of September 21. Apparently, Texans are not used to travelling with their pets, but since they were forced to take them on the evacuation, this caused some real problems. At the IHOP in Huntsville, we saw some people coming in for lunch and who had left their dog in the car despite the 100F temperature (it was about noon). I immediately brought this to the attention of one person in the party, who seemed annoyed at my intervention. I then found the owner, a rather elderly man who didn't seem to know what to do. I suggested tying up the dog in the restaurant's entrance, which was air conditioned, but separate from the actual eating area. The manager adamantly refused, citing health codes. Apparently she didn't think of this as an emergency situation. The dog was finally tied up outside in the shade, which was certainly an improvement over the 150F inside the car. About 15 minutes later, we went out and found that the dog was having difficulty breathing. The owner finally got in the car with his dog and turned on the A/C. It seems clear that this situation was probably repeated many times over, but without anyone coming to the animal's rescue.

This situation intensified on the evening of September 21. There were long lines at the gas pumps, but everyone was extremely cordial, with people telling me which pumps were available. No one got upset, despite the fact that fuel was flowing slowly at the pumps due to large demand (I got premium to avoid this problem). On the morning of September 22, I was having breakfast in Huntsville, TX, 80 miles North of Houston, and saw from the window that I-45 was heavily backed up. At that point, I decided to take side roads North. This succeeded very well, as no other roads had any traffic problems at all. No time would have been lost anyway, since the speed limit on Texas secondary roads is the same as on the freeway. This once again goes to show that most people are like sheep and just take the interstate. Oh, the only traffic jam on that part of the trip was in a place called Crockett, TX, which was caused the police closing off the South entrance to the city and forcing motorists to take the ring road. The scene was straight out of The Grapes of Wrath, and I was expecting to see at any time some baseball bat wielding villagers. Apart from that, people were very civil. I blocked someone at a busy gas station because I was recording my mileage and the lady honked her horn so she could pass. She then spent the next 5 minutes apologizing. Another thing we noted is that there were convoys of cars parked on the side of the road, and many of these seemed to be Hispanic, which gave us the impression that this culture had larger family bonds. The pictures of I-45 during this exodus show that Southbound lanes were clear for many hours due to the difficulty in getting these setup for Northbound traffic, that is, blocking off all entrance ramps. However, it seems much simpler to allow single lane of Southbound traffic, and simply use the other lanes for Northbound traffic by allowing cars to cross the median line under police supervision. There was a picture in USA Today of a motorist on I-45 pushing his Jeep in order to save gas. A simple computation shows that this is a completely idiotic thing to do. In particular, if a Jeep gets 15 mpg on flat ground, then it is reasonable to assume that one can get at least 5mpg by continually starting it to creep a few feet. Now consider travelling 5 miles. Is it better to use one gallon of gasoline, or to have a human being push the 2 ton vehicle for 5 miles in 100F temperature? Since heavy physical exercise in 100F temperature requires close to 1 gallon of water per hour, and a human being can push at a maximum of 2 miles per hour, one sees that it would take 2 gallons of water to maintain the human being, as opposed to a gallon of gasoline for the Jeep. Continuing with this type of argument, I believe that the most surprising thing is that fewer people died or were seriously impaired by heat prostration.

On September 22, we had difficulty finding motel rooms in Texas, and finally found one in McAlester, OK. It turned out that the motel manager made a mistake and gave us the wrong room. When we realised this the next morning, the other manager refused to refund our money. Discussions with other evacuees revealed that one person had been cheated elsewhere, by a Super 8 motel that had dedicted $100 from his credit card. It turned out that he was not alone, and a call to the police and to the Super 8 toll free number set things straight.

The question that seemed most obvious to me about the Houston exodus was: Why? It is true that a place like New Orleans, which is below sea level and next to the ocean, needs to be evacuated, but Houston is above sea level and 50 miles from the ocean. If one has a fairly solid house, then I don't see what the serious danger is. Most amazing to me is that this point was never raised during the frenzy to leave the area. When I observed the united stand the French media took in unjustly accusing Armstrong of doping, I reacted immediately by writing this letter to French newspaper, which had no interest in printing it. At that time, I believed that such a phenomenon could not happen in the US, and that in every situation, there would be a dissenting opinion in the media. Apparently, I was wrong.

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