Hermits Rock

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It started almost right away, which I learned from Dad when I called him on Father’s Day. “Over dinner, we were talking about how much more civilized people were in response to the floods in the Midwest than they were in New Orleans.” Today, it came from my grandmother in the form of a forward:

Observation…best mail in a long time and it is even true…cbr

Just a personal observation… As I watched the news coverage of the massive flooding in the Midwest with over 100 blocks of the city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa under water, levees breaking, and the attention now turned downstream for when this massive amount of water hits the Mississippi, what amazed me is not what we saw, but “what we didn’t see…”

1. We don’t see looting.

2. We don’t see street violence.

3. We don’t see people sitting on their rooftops waiting for the government to come and save them.

4. We don’t see people waiting on the government to do anything.

5. We don’t see Hollywood organizing benefits to raise money for people to rebuild.
6. We don’t see people blaming President Bush.

7. We don’t see people ignoring evacuation orders.

8. We don’t see people blaming a government conspiracy to blow up the levees as the reason some have not held.

9. We don’t see the US Senators or the Governor of Iowa crying on TV.

10. We don’t see the Mayors of any of these cities complaining about the lack of state or federal response.

11. We don’t see or hear reports of the police going around confiscating personal firearms so only the criminal will be armed.

12. We don’t see gangs of people going around and randomly shooting at the rescue workers.

13. You don’t see some leaders in this country blaming the bad behavior of the Iowa flood victims on “society” (of course there is no wide spread reports of lawlessness to require excuses).*

14. What does that say about the people of New Orleans compaired to the working American farmer???

Indeed, “what does that say about the people of New Orleans compaired to the working American farmer?” Because I’ve now responded to the question twice (and both times I’ve bitten my tongue and not called the questioner a racist asshole), I suspect you’re probably hearing it too. If you would like to respond, then feel free to use my answer. Moreover, feel free to adopt it as your own, recycle it, condense it, elaborate on it, spread it to the ends of the Intarwebs. Truth is worth spreading.

A few minutes studying the floods that happened to New Orleans and Cedar Rapids and Iowa City/Coralville is enough to demonstrate that the question is illegitimate. The circumstances couldn’t be more different.

First, there are a few facts that need to be cleared up: Cedar Rapids and Iowa City/Coralville are not full of farmers. For those farmers whose crops were destroyed in the floods, thanks to the crop insurance subsidies in the recent Farm Bill the farmers whose fields have been destroyed will be compensated at market prices for their losses (What they get from FEMA, which will be a lot, is over and above crop insurance). In both cities, many business and homeowners have already applied for federal and state disaster relief. Finally, there actually has been violence in the Midwest when frustrated homeowners have been prevented from entering their homes after the floods subsided, stories which have been reported in the local news if not the national news.

More importantly, the floods are incomparable. New Orleans sustained a nearly direct hit by one the largest hurricanes ever recorded. Nothing like it had ever been seen there. The hurricane overwhelmed all of the city’s public works and since the city was below sea level anyway, caused the levees that protect the city to catastrophically fail. The city was also home to a half-million people. Many of them relied upon public transportation as their only or primary transportation, but there were several significant failures of the public transit system that left tens of thousands stranded who might not have been otherwise.

In addition, there are all kinds of psychological games that people play when they are hit by storms. Frequently, people decide they will not abandon their property (their livelihood) and they decide to ride out the storms no matter what. In New Orleans, because the flooding was widespread and deep, that meant that a lot of people were left helplessly stranded in the attics of their houses in Louisiana in August, surrounded by a mixture of river water and raw sewage to their necks or higher. I can hardly imagine a worse hell. Government response to that scene was atrocious. It was days before supplies were even made available to citizens; much too many people died as a result of the horrible emergency response.

Finally, with New Orleans the prevailing story in the media (to the media’s credit) was how poorly the poor were served. It’s rare that you get days on end of CNN coverage on issues of poverty. New Orleans had been a cracked city for some time before Katrina hit it, and Hurricane Katrina broke it open for everyone to see how cracked it had been.

In contrast, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City/Coralville (and many other towns in Iowa and now Missouri) got hit by a flood that, given the record snowfall and potential for record rainfall this year presented, had been anticipated since January. Many people knew what to expect because both cities had 100-year floods only 15 years ago. They lived through it, remembered where the water went, knew which properties were first in danger. In response to the floods in 1993, both cities had redesigned much of their infrastructures to better accommodate flooding. They widened the rivers’ tributaries, required people who lived along the rivers to raise their houses, and most importantly redesigned water and wastewater plants—as a result, in 2008 neither Cedar Rapids nor Iowa City/Coralville lost water or sewer (though Cedar Rapids came close). Moreover, fewer people live in flood plains in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City/Coralville than in New Orleans, and hardly any of them that do rely on public transportation. Iowans evacuated under their own power readily. It should also be noted that no one in Iowa was required to evacuate 100 miles away—a couple of blocks was usually as far as was necessary.

Much of downtown Cedar Rapids was hit really hard by the floods, but in Iowa City/Coralville, there are really only four neighborhoods where people live in the Iowa River flood plain (Edgewater Drive, Normandy Drive, Idylwild and Taft Speedway, and the Thatcher and Baculis mobile home parks). Consequently, those were the primary residences from which people had to evacuate. Some who lived in apartments over businesses in the Coralville strip were evacuated, too. Most of what is in the flood plain are businesses and the University of Iowa, important of course, but not generally places that people will risk life and limb to defend.

The local media has served the poor in the community (such as those who live in the mobile home parks who were evacuated early) poorly. The Iowa City Press-Citizen, for example, has mentioned the Normandy drive neighborhood 300% more during this flood than the mobile home parks, and there have been very few stories about those who have been forced to move into the Red Cross shelters. I haven’t kept track of how well national news outlets have been reporting such consequences, but my guess is that they take their cues from the local reporters, and the local reporters have been pretty bad.

The comparison between what happened in New Orleans and what happened in Iowa is illegitimate. I would add, too, that it is shameful because it attempts to use the suffering of one population to spit upon the suffering of another. How anyone could write that and look herself in the mirror the next morning is almost beyond imagination.



i am sad that people would write and forward crap like that first email. what would be their explicit point about the difference between “the people of New Orleans compared to the working American farmer”? as you noted, the implicit point seems to be an attempt at drawing a crude race-based distinction.

I’m nearly speechless—but thankfully, you were not. I hope this gets spread at least as far as the first email, if not farther.

1: I think the fact that the point is implicit is the most damning evidence that the point is racism. I can’t think of any other potential comparison between Midwesterners and Southerners—poverty? ethnic heritage? career identity? regional identity? civilisation/barbarity?—that would make the question as significant as the writer assumes it to be.

2: I’m afraid mine isn’t pithy enough to be very successful as viral mailing. But perhaps somebody will help make it pithier? Seems like a good task for the commentariat.

I appreciate your thoughtful and candid response.
I wonder if, coupled with the more blatant racism, there’s also a little urban/rural thing going on here, as in “the country mouse is tougher than the city mouse.”
My favorite story about my late grandfather is the response he gave to his wealthy brothers who complained about Democrat-backed welfare—that they (farmers) got substantial welfare in the form of subsidies that were also thanks to the Democrats. So I especially appreciate your pointing this parallel out in your response.
And I agree, your response needs to be in bullet-points to get mass-forwarded.

“Just a personal observation…” goes up there with “I’m not a racist, but…” What follows is almost always something that should embarass the speaker (but never does, tragically).

Writing for The Guardian, Lynda Waddington surveys the national media coverage of the floods. I hadn’t paid much attention to it, but it would seem that some of comparisons are coming out of the reporting.

The trope of the stoic Midwestern homesteader that she relies on is a bit much, though.

4: I meant to comment on this earlier. I agree about the urban/rural stereotyping. It too is colored by race, though it isn’t entirely defined by it.

Some tracking information: The FWD was posted to a forum on the Pennsylvania Firearms Association website on or about Monday, June 23 or Tuesday, June 24, and to CraigsList on Wednesday, June 25.