Dear People of the Mississippi:
Let me start off by saying, I'm sorry--I don't know what else to call you. "Flood victims" seems, well, crass. After Katrina, we were called by many names. The nicer ones were "evacuees" and "those poor people."
I remember when I first evacuated to Atlanta and sat, like so many others, glued to the television, watching the coverage of Katrina. After seeing footage of Bay St. Louis, after Katrina made landfall--and of New Orleans, after the levees broke, I turned to my mother and said "We're those poor people now." You know the ones--the ones you watch on television, in the midst of their tragedies. You watch for a minute, shake your head at their fate, and go back to your life.
It's okay. It's normal. It's a part of the human condition, I think--to be able to compartmentalize like that--to disassociate yourself. If we had to sit down and feel--really feel--the daily suffering of our fellow man, we'd go crazy. Hurricanes, cyclones, tsunamis, mud slides, earthquakes. Too much misery in the world. So you think about them while you're drinking your morning coffee and watching the news, maybe you click on the "donate" button at the Red Cross site, and then you go on with your life.
And then, it happens to you. And it's different. And people start donating stuff to you--and you're grateful, except for when they send you things like paint-covered sweatpants and old, used underwear. And that gets you mad. And you think, "What am I, a charity case?" And then you realize that, to some people, you are. And that they think you might actually want their used underwear.
And while you're still reeling from the shock of losing your life as you knew it, the comments start. And you realize that while there are plenty of people in this country whose hearts truly go out to you, there are, unfortunately, just as many that want to blame you for your misfortune. The ugly words begin. "Refugees." "Those people," as opposed to "those poor people." Inevitably, it moves on to venom. "They got what they deserved for living there." "What were they thinking?" "It's their fault for not having flood insurance." And it destroys a part of your soul, at least for a little while
Be grateful that there have not yet been debates about whether you should be allowed to rebuild your homes. Be thankful that John Hagee hasn't yet declared that God's wrath was visited upon you.
And then, you'll walk into your home. The one where flood waters tossed everything around. You'll be both appalled and amazed at what the waters were able to accomplish. How in the hell did your refrigerator end up over there? (Do NOT, under any circumstances, open your refrigerator. Tape it shut and put it on the curb, NOW.)
You may wonder why your government did nothing to make sure your levees were safe. You may rail at your insurance agent, who told you that the chances of a 100-year-flood, or the even more improbable 500-year-flood, were so minuscule that flood insurance wasn't necessary, much less required. And those of you who didn't have flood insurance will sit and stare at your insurance agent and watch your life go down the tubes, as he/she tells you that, even though flood insurance wasn't required, or even recommended, you're screwed now, since you didn't have it. And then, you might become even more bewildered when you find out that your insurer has cancelled your policy, even though they haven't had to pay you a dime for those flood-excluded damages. You see, you're too big of a risk now.
And then, you'll cry. And then, you'll begin the process of rebuilding, even if it's in defiance of those who say you shouldn't. You'll pick up the pieces, day by day. And you'll build your life back, little by little. Three years from now, you'll still cart visiting friends and relatives around town and watch their faces as you point out the flood lines and say yes, the water really did get that high. You'll excitedly point to where something used to be but is no longer.
Years from now, you'll still hurt quite a bit. No one will get it, exactly--what it feels like to lose everything you own and/or the life that you knew. Everyone else will think you should move on (and move). But the camaraderie that you feel for those who do get it--for those who went through it with you--may surprise you. They will be there for you, and they'll foster in you a sense of community and support that you might not have known was possible.
And we, in New Orleans, will be thinking of you--and rooting you on.