In January of 1997, I traveled to Ashland, Oregon for my Aunt Mimi and Uncle Bob's 50th wedding anniversary celebration. Mimi and Bob (and their son and his family) lived in Olympia, Washington, while other family members lived in California; they decided to hold the party near the half way point. I was excited about going to Ashland--I knew it was home to Shakespeare festivals and gorgeous hiking trails, plus I was looking forward to some good intense family togetherness. The trip was off to a great start--I was paged as Gil Banderas at the airport, which still cracks me up--but as soon as we landed, we found out Ashland was flooded.
Water cascaded along the freeways as the taxi drove me and my dad and my aunt Sylvia to our hotel. We could see a deer pick its way through chest deep water in a wooded area near the road. When we reached downtown, raging white water rapids coursed down the main street. Our hotel area was only a little bit flooded, but the water supply had been contaminated, so the water had been turned off. Power was out, too, although the hotel was using an emergency generator, so the hallways were dimly lit. My dad and aunt and I were able to buy water and sandwiches at the convenience store across the parking lot from our hotel. By the time we walked back to our rooms with our little dinner, the National Guard had arrived. They set up a truck with a small water tank in the parking lot; residents stood in line with buckets and bottles and tubs, and waited patiently for them to be filled.
The weekend was an adventure--the plans for the party had to be scrapped, because the venue had been severely flooded, but my cousin was able to reserve the party room in a local Chinese restaurant. The power went on and off during our dinner, but that only added to the festive, fun feeling of the evening. My aunts and uncle--all of whom have since passed away--shared memories of their youth in Chicago in the early 20th century, and I soaked it all up with grateful ears. I hadn't seen Mimi and Clarice in the same place together in ages, and was so taken by their sharp minds, their wicked senses of humor. The flood was an inconvenience to be sure (of course, for Ashland, it was more than that; it devastated many people's lives)--I was worried about being able to fly back home to my husband and two little kids, but I never felt as if my life was in danger. People felt as if the situation was under control, as if we were in good hands. My main memories of the weekend involve sitting on a hotel bed with my dad and my 89 year old aunt, eating our sandwiches and laughing in the darkening room.
The situation is so utterly, bleakly, different in New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast. Where was the National Guard from the very start? (Of course I can answer that--they were in Iraq, where they're dying at a rate of more than 35% more than the average military troops. We need to bring them home. Now.)
How could we forsake our own people, who are waiting and begging and praying for help as their conditions get more and more unbearable? How could we allow the situation to degenerate like this? I imagine that if things had gotten worse in mostly-white Ashland, air lift evacuations and aid would have been virtually immediate. People wouldn't be waiting in a filthy, dangerous stadium for days. I watch the news, and read the tragic stories coming from the area, and it feels like such a deep wound, a wound that seems impossible to heal. I can only hope that the compassion and generosity of the American people can override the callousness and ineptitude of our current government (and the firmly entrenched social/racial/financial injustice our government perpetuates). It's the stories of people opening their wallets, opening their homes, that give me hope for recovery, hope for the future of our country. But it's going to be a long, long haul.