Katrina winds spread poverty awareness

Some seemed ecstatic. Some, as they descended from the aircraft that brought them here, looked bewildered. When they were hurried onto the plane in Louisiana, they'd been told they were going to Texas, but here they were in Utah.

Some clutched all the possessions they now own in a couple of shopping bags. Most had no homes to go back to after Katrina destroyed everything in its path. Some had been separated from their children, or left other relatives behind. Some had tearfully left behind pets that the crews in the rescue boats had said could not be taken aboard.

But their relief was evident as they set foot in Utah, on dry land, with good drinking water and food, to find a community that had opened its arms and its pocketbooks to them and would help put behind them the chaos of New Orleans. Utah undertook to receive 2,000 evacuees - "Don't call us refugees," said one man, "we're Americans, not refugees" - from the stricken South.

This first batch of several hundreds was soon installed in a National Guard camp. After a couple of days, some left in buses for Houston to continue the quest for missing family members. Some left for other destinations to live with family members in states not blitzed by Katrina. Some liked the look of Utah and declared they'd stay and job-hunt and make their lives anew here.

In the finger-pointing going on about bureaucratic ineptness in the handling of the disaster there have been charges of racism. There was the ugly suggestion that a predominantly white community would have received faster relief than did the African-American community in New Orleans. But there was no hint of racism in the welcome a predominantly white state like Utah gave this predominantly black group of evacuees.

What quickly became known to the rescuers were the sorry economic conditions under which many of the evacuees had been living even before Katrina. Many, warned to leave before the hurricane, couldn't because they didn't own cars. Many were unemployed and didn't own homes, but rented. Some lived in hand-to-mouth poverty. Said one man of about 20, "I ain't going back, whatever. Even before the hurricane it was a terrible place to live. Shootings, crime, and no jobs. I'm gonna start my life again.... Maybe somewhere else."

If New Orleans was best known for the wail of the blues from saxophones and clarinets, Katrina is like a bugle call to the rest of us to take note of the poverty in our society to which we may have hitherto been blind. How can it be that in a nation so strong and prosperous, pockets of such anguish remain?

It isn't a US problem alone. It's global. Even as evacuees by the hundreds continued to be flown or bussed from the stricken Gulf area, a UN report called for more aggressive action in combating the poverty that exists worldwide.

The UN faulted wealthy countries like the US and Japan for not doing enough to achieve goals set to halve extreme poverty and reduce deaths of children by two-thirds by 2015. The US, it said, trumpets the virtues of open markets and free trade, but throws up protectionist barriers against goods from poor countries. It spends "hundreds of billions" of dollars on subsidies that benefit US large-scale farmers, landowners, and agribusiness.

The UN reports the US will pay $4.7 billion to 20,000 cotton farmers in 2005, more than all US aid to Africa, giving American producers an unfair advantage over small farmers in Burkina Faso and Mali. "Industrial countries are locked into a system that wastes money at home and destroys livelihoods abroad," the UN charges. But it also rebuked India (with 2.5 million "easily preventable" child deaths a year) and China (with 730,000 preventable child deaths a year) for not doing more to tackle their problems, even as their economies surge.

Eliminating world poverty isn't only an altruistic objective. As we see in the Middle East, poverty is one of the prime breeding grounds for the next generation of terrorists the Western world has vowed to defeat.

John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.

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