Where is the Government?

I’m sitting in a gas line a block and a half away from a Texaco station in Mobile, Alabama four days after hurricane Katrina swept through this region. It’s about 85 degrees at 4 o’clock in the afternoon as I sit in my father’s pickup. The engine is off, in an effort to conserve gas, while I wait for the line to crawl forward another car length.

The local news cast on the radio carries urgent pleas from New Orleans and Mississippi residents and local officials. They’re pleas for national assistance that has not yet arrived. It’s been four harrowing days, and the bewildered and indignant question on everyone’s mind is, “Where is the government?”

Across the street, a young mother with a small squirming boy on her hip walks across the yard of a dilapidated abandoned high school, stepping around oak branches downed by the storm. A middle-aged man walks up to the open window of my truck. He offers me the use of his gas canister and asks for some help getting something to eat.

This is not the “poor part” of Mobile, and Mobile is not the “poor part” of Alabama. This is just one of hundreds of cities and towns across America where the question of “where is the government?” is not a new one.

Here in Alabama, the likelihood of experiencing a hurricane or tropical storm is high. So is the likelihood of living below the poverty line. It’s 16 percent. If you’re black, it’s over 31 percent. The infant mortality rate is over 9 percent. Joblessness is rampant.

The problems here in Mobile, New Orleans, Biloxi, and in countless other rural communities and inner cities – the poverty, the desperation, the lack of social services- started long before Katrina’s first winds blew.

>From the near elimination of public mental health facilities, to ravaging welfare “reform,” to the still unfunded “No Child Left Behind” program, Federal and state governments have been engaged in a steady and deliberate retreat from the duty of providing social services and economic development to the people of this country. The process of rolling back government started during the Reagan years, but Bush has been energetically advancing the effort by leaps and bounds. Even when not at the Crawford Ranch, this government is on a permanent vacation from governing.

The Bush Administration’s demonstrated protocol in times of national difficulty has been first, to do nothing. The second move is then to applaud the efforts of countless hundreds or thousands of Americans who are pulling together, who are rolling up their sleeves and getting down to work. The faith-based groups, little kids raising money with lemon aid stands, the Armies of Compassion, staffing food lines, taking in the homeless, tutoring disadvantaged youth.

What the Administration holds up as signs of righteous and resourceful citizenry are also glaring signs of an ineffective government, an irresponsive government, a broken social contract. Once a central function of government, the provision of social services in this country has essentially been outsourced to overburdened shelters and cash-strapped community groups.

Bush landed in Mobile today to finally “tour” the devastation in the region. In a press conference upon landing, Bush acknowledged that the results of the recovery effort “are not acceptable.” When asked to clarify what exactly he felt was unacceptable, Bush replied, “Well, I’m talking about the fact that we don’t have enough security in New Orleans yet.” The president made no mention of the fact that tens of thousands of people are stranded without adequate food, water, or medical attention. The rescue stage is still not yet over, and has been horribly botched, the relief stage has yet to be made effective, and above all this, Bush’s top concern is law enforcement.

But that’s not out of character for this administration. Whether abroad in Iraq or here at home, our government’s function has been streamlined to consist solely of policing. Meanwhile, the not-for-profit social service organizations and the Armies of Compassion are left scrambling to pick up the slack and attempting to provide a modicum of social welfare for citizens.

While Americans ask the question “where is the government?” the question right behind that, the question which may not leave patriotic lips, but is nonetheless creeping into consciousnesses is, “How come a government that’s able to move tens of thousands of troops halfway across the globe isn’t able to bring some Guardsmen here to hand out bottled water?” Or “Why can the government build empires abroad, but it can’t build a decent high school for my kids.”

Back in the gas line a sixty year-old woman tells me, “This is what you get with this administration.”

What the winds of Katrina have blown into the national view are not just images of ravaged hurricane victims. They’re the images of average Americans, long left stranded by their government. This is the other part of America- forgotten, ignored, shoved so effectively under the carpet that it takes 175 mile per hour winds and an opening of the flood gates of Hell to force their story onto primetime TV and into the national discourse.

The reconstruction and rehabilitation that will be needed over the next few years from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina is almost unimaginable in scope. Estimates of up to 500,000 people will need homes, jobs, healthcare, and schools. And this number will surely increase over the next few weeks. Likely the government has no plan yet for how these needs will be met.

At the same time, the number of “refugees” in this country from the longstanding national disasters of poverty, joblessness, lack of schools and accessible healthcare are also growing. Long after the last floodwaters have been drained from the city of New Orleans, the effort needed for real relief and reconstruction in this country will still be gargantuan. And though they’re great at what they do, the Salvation Army isn’t up to the job.

Gretchen Gordon is a freelance writer living in Washington, DC, writing from Mobile, Alabama. She can be reached at: [email protected]

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