SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2005        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Sean English

Savage Storm

      When hurricane Katrina first reached the Gulf Coast I was terrified that I would never see my parents ever again.  My parents live nearby New Orleans, and I have spent many of my childhood years there.  When the storm got close, I called my father to see if they were going to evacuate, and being as stubborn as he is they decided to stay.  Knowing that they were probably huddled in a closet during the storm, I was terrified for my parents' safety.  Once the storm actually hit I was unable to get in contact with them for days after, I was going crazy.  Friday morning rolled around and I was exhausted with the stress of the storm, all I could think about was my family and whether or not they were even alive.

Over the few frantic days that passed between the hit of the storm and finding my parents, I heard racist and ignorant comments about the people of New Orleans.  Many people said, of the residents stranded in the city, that it was their fault for not leaving and that they deserved to die and starve because they are poor and gang members.  People who are not from the area could never understand how poor some of the people in the city are.  Many of these people did not have the opportunity or the resources to evacuate in a timely manner.  They were all stuck and their homes, in most cases, are all they had.   

These prejudiced and ignorant comments fermented in my mind for days until I got a phone call at work that made the thermometer in my brain explode. Working in the travel industry I have heard many skewed views of other parts of the world.  I have heard racist comments about every culture and nationality, uttered out of pure ignorance but this one took the cake.  Before the storm hit I had been corresponding with a client about a cruise on a Carnival cruise ship sailing out of Florida.  The client that I am referring to is from upstate New York, far away from poverty, and has know idea of what the struggles of inner city life can be like. 

    Ring, Ring, the phone rang louder than ever this morning. Regardless I answered the call with a professional and positive attitude.  “Mrs. Smith how are you today, are you ready to book your carnival cruise vacation?”  

“No I am not,” she replied. "In fact I want to scratch that idea all together.  I will never cruise on a Carnival ship, ever.  Do you know what they are doing to those ships? "

I told that I had no idea of what she was talking about.  She explained. “Why are they going to donate perfectly good ships to a bunch of animals?”  My mind snapped at this point, but I had to keep my cool in order to close the sale.  Mrs. Smith then explained further. 

“All of the refugees are disease infested and this is going to ruin the ship. Carnival should have let them fend for themselves instead of having to cancel several cruise vacations to help with the clean up after Katrina.” 

Over and over in my head I was wondering how a human being could feel this way about another human being.  

Then I began to reflect on all of the racist comments I have heard about the folks in New Orleans over the years and while I lived there.  I can remember when my parents first moved to their new town, Ponchatoula.  The town is very small and obviously has a racist past.  The town of Ponchatoula actually has a blacks only cemetery from the 1930’s, before the civil rights movement, which helps imagine the past that this town must have had.  The white Cajun people in the area are very friendly and they act as if they have known you since birth.

One summer I was visiting my parents and I can remember seeing one of the neighbors pull up to his brand new house in a jet black Lincoln Navigator on what appeared to be 22 inch rims.  I made a comment about how after I graduate I would like to have a car like that.  The “kind” Cajun who I was sitting with laughed at me and said,  "those cars are for blacks not whites.” He suggested that I get a nice Chevy truck instead. How can a type of vehicle be race specific, I wondered? It was almost as if the Cajun man was trying to distance himself from me  and the black population by letting me know the proper vehicles for whites. 

    New Orleans has always been a city that survives on tourist dollars. People go to the city because of its street culture with music, art, dance, and even the street vendors cooking up some the best food in the world. With this in mind it is interesting to see how people will turn their backs on the underprivileged people in the urban areas of the city.  For people to say that the hurricane devastation doesn’t matter because the people are poor is to stare hypocrisy in the face. When are people going to realize that the reason people visit New Orleans is for the people and its culture?  These people that tourists flock to see are the same ones that the tourists are trying to avoid helping.  

We are all Americans and we are all human beings.  With a war overseas, supposedly to “restore democracy,” being our main focus it is hard to perceive how serious this situation really is.  Thousands have lost their lives to this awesome storm and even more are homeless.  One common overlooked fact of the tragedy is that there are just as many non-African Americans that were affected.  I can remember my Mother telling a story that, for one reason or another, never made it to Arizona news.  She told me of a “white” police officer that decided to stay in the city to help with the hurricane, while his family was at home.  Hours later after the chaos ended he returned home only to find his wife and kids huddled in a closet drowned. This officer in turn pulled his police issued firearm out of his holster and preceded to take his own life without hesitation. 

New Orleans is on the verge of never being the same unless people get together and help as much as possible. The question we need to ask ourselves is are we treating people of other cultures and races as a mere means to the end?  In other words, is their existence only good for entertainment and personal gain?  The answer is obviously no. I suppose the only way for Mrs. Smith to understand the situation of these innocent people is to be a part of them or to step up and see what exactly is going on.  Hate in this nation has a way of self-perpetuating through time, no matter how non-racist some like to think they are, deep down they are as afraid of other cultures and races as the next.  The only way to avoid this misunderstood fear is to confront it and realize that we are all people trying to survive and provide the best life for our family and ourselves.  This world will never become a better or safer place with Americans accusing other Americans of being savages. 

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