Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Bus People

I led a discussion last night about Hurricane Katrina with about 20 students from the University of Vermont and St. Michael's College. We are all going to New Orleans with Intervarsity during their spring break to do recovery work. In preparation we have been familiarizing ourselves with the Katrina story, and most especially the stories of those caught up in its path of destruction.

Last night's discussion centered around an article by Danny Duncan Collum which originally ran in Sojourner's Magagine last January. Collum writes about how fear gripped hold of our nation in the days following Katrina. He talked about all the misinformation that was put out - false reports about massive-scale raping and murdering in the Superdome, shots fired at rescue helicopters, etc.

I remember hearing all those reports. And I remember believing them too.

Irie and I were in Houston at the time, visiting a friend's church. As the initial platforms of evacuation - the Superdome, the Alamodome, the Astrodome, etc. - began to overflow with Katrina evacuees, many smaller facilities began opening up as official Red Cross evacuation centers. The church we were visiting was one of them.

The church's gymn was converted into a temporary dormitory. Cots were brought in, a triage medical clinic was set up, and a large breakout room was filled with all kinds of donated toiletry items. There was toothpaste, soap, deodorant, and lots and lots of hair products. I will never forget what Irie said after taking a look at all the hair products that had been collected. "Those are white people's shampoos and hair brushes. They are NOT going to work for the people who are coming to stay here."

The first night there we heard from the area Red Cross disaster response coordinator that a busload of people were coming from the Astrodome. She counseled us to be on our guard because of all the reports that were coming out. Red Cross volunteers then began training us in how to search people for weapons. No one came in without being searched. Red Cross policy.

That night a lot of people stood around and waited for a mass influx of people that never came. Only a few carloads trickled in. Since they had heard the same reports about how unsafe the evacuee centers were, they were not eager to stay. They came in, took toothpaste and deodorant, passed on the hair products, then went on to the next town. Everyone wanted to get as far away from New Orleans as possible.

The next morning - a groggy one for a lot of folks who stayed up waiting - the official word came. More evacuees were on their way. And these, we were told, were going to be "bus people."

Bus people. I asked the students last night what that term implied. They were right on the mark. Bus People was a euphemism for a whole lot of things. Black. Poor. Dangerous. Desperate. Nothing to lose. Add all those things up and suddenly you have a word pregnant with a whole heck of a lot of force.

Over a hundred of us New Englanders will travel down to New Orleans in March. We will be taking busses. People will take one look at us when we roll into town and they will pick a name for us right off. They will call us college kids, and missionaries, and Christians, and do-gooderers, and patronizing, and pure of heart. They will call us all kinds of things.

But they will not call us bus people. And I think we all ought to think about that.