RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Storms Pass, Survivors Last

It's sure great to see cracks in the chummy relationship between the Bush dynasty and the Clintons. Good to hear the ex-prez tell ABC News, "You can't have an emergency plan that works if it only affects middle-class people up" and add that when poverty goes up, poor families have fewer options when a disaster strikes.

"This is a matter of public policy," Clinton said. "And whether it's race-based or not, if you give your tax cuts to the rich and hope everything works out all right, and poverty goes up and it disproportionately affects black and brown people, that's a consequence of the action made. That's what they did in the '80s; that's what they've done in this decade. In the middle, we had a different policy."

It's refreshing to hear a politician who thinks he has an idea. Sure hope some of his Democrat colleagues are listening. Maybe someone could come up with something that could really benefit the working poor, laborers, farmers.

And about that rebuilding. How about rebuilding downtowns that are less fragile? Like Des Moines, Kansas City, Cleveland.

And, let's say we rebuild New Orleans -- a matter of serious doubt given its flimsy location -- will we rebuild it like it was, complete with institutionalized poverty and codified racism? That was a city, after all, that depended on poverty. A stroll through the French Quarter took us past strip joints, cheap-rent art galleries, voodoo souvenir shops. If we'd wanted Disneyland, we'd have been strolling through Disneyland. Yes, there were good restaurants and smoky jazz clubs, but the very identity of the Big Easy depended on tap dancing urchins and raggedy guitar pickers on the streets looking for tips.

More than a billion dollars have been raised from the private sector since Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Excellent work, y'all, but don't forget the needs at home. While much of that billion goes to the right people at the right time, faraway givers don't always know how to help.

What's needed is simple: food, water, shelter.

What's wanted is immeasurably complex: food like mom's, water like I grew up with, shelter like home. Just give me something I'm used to, the song goes. And if that's not able to be replicated, it's going to take a long time before I'm satisfied. It's going to take patience and time.

Local and regional preferences are important parts of who we are. Giving up our preferences means giving up pieces of our history. The survivors, especially the adults, who are just getting a glimmer of what they've lost, won't easily give up their history, even though they may see a glimmer of a brighter future for the kids.

That late, great genius Marshall McLuhan said that mass media will make all the world a global village. With TV, radio, Internet, everyone can know everything at the same time. And be moved -- or not -- by the predicament of people far away.

We're living that prediction. Stumbling into a country café after four days in the limbo of Farm Aid volunteerism, a bunch of Missourians were shocked to see that Hurricane Rita was heading to the Gulf Coast. When they'd left home, it was all about Katrina. Hurricanes with names starting with L, M, N, O and P had all come and gone in just a few days.

And was there a Q? Nobody knew, but the subject dropped as the group watched the picture of Rita on the oversized screen. A swirl of orange, heading across a bluish ocean toward a greenish land mass.

The group had been through a whirlwind of its own. A day in a van, a day cooking and serving Patchwork Family Farm barbecue, made from pork raised in a sustainable manner by family farmers.

They had spent hours serving customers and minutes watching the concert, good hours of friendship. At the end of the concert, they'd seen four 16-wheelers take off, loaded with food donated by the concert-goers for Katrina survivors.

And they had personal knowledge of the hurricane-broken area. Patchwork's director, Roger Allison, had driven a truckload of pork to a school in Selma that had been fitted out for families in need. Now, they wondered, would the same thing be needed after Rita? And what about the food pantries in Missouri, always on emergency status lately?

Rita won't be the last. The season is young and the alphabet is long. But, back home, the need is great also. The uprooted and the families that have taken them in are dealing with extraordinary stress.

It's going to be a long, cold, winter for the survivors, and they're going to need more than the ordinary amount of resources -- especially patience -- from the rest of us.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Oct. 15, 2005

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