Broken levees let racially-charged rhetoric flow

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Are Midwesterners simply better than people in other parts of the country? Do we work harder? Are we less reliant on others for help when we need it? Are our values more aligned with the American ethic?

Today’s Star Tribune “letter of the day” seems to think so. Writer Jeffrey Seyfert of Farmington compares Hurricane Katrina in 2004 with the flooding in Iowa and sections of Minnesota last week.


There is historic flooding involving five Midwestern states; Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. Where are the news anchors reporting from the bridges asking where is the federal government and when are they coming to the rescue, as they did back during Hurricane Katrina?

The reason you don’t see them is it doesn’t fit the template. It doesn’t fit the template that the federal government is supposed to be omnipresent in our lives and that self-reliance and self-responsibility are mere clichés of days long ago.

The difference is our fellow Midwesterners are picking themselves off the ground, brushing themselves off, and getting to work. Their first instinct is not to blame government; their first instinct is to help each other out and try to put their lives back together.

The first instinct of the victims in both cases, of course, was to get to high ground, which both did. And then wait for help. In the Midwest last week, police from Minneapolis helped out, the Red Cross in the Twin Cities sent a dozen or so workers to assist. In Louisiana, the Red Cross was kept out of New Orleans for several days.

Syefert’s letter could be dismissed if it weren’t for the fact it’s part of a growing chorus in the Midwest: black people got help in 2004, and the mostly white Midwesterns can’t catch a break.

Today, the Chicago Tribune profiled the growing sentiment in the Heartland:


“Where is all the fundraising that Katrina victims had?” Ben Creelman asked, a disgusted tone seeping into his voice. “Is it because we’re not from the Deep South? Is it because we’re from the Midwest?”

Creelman didn’t put it in so many words, but his message was clear. The poor, mostly African American residents of New Orleans’ 9th Ward inspired a charitable outpouring not seen since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The flooded farms of the central Midwest, meanwhile, just can’t catch a break.

It gets worse. One man, sandbagging in Columbus Junction, Iowa said “even the Hispanics” were sandbagging, while pointing out that African Americans weren’t.

(Update Tues)

On the St. Louis Post Dispatch Web site, a reader from Iowa writes:


Thousands have volunteered, first with sandbagging, then with cleanup and a lot of them are from out of state. Some of the people who were flooded out were not let into their homes because it was unsafe and of course they were upset but I haven’t seen anyone wandering the streets yelling “Da gobernment owes us”.

And on the Never Yet Melted blog, this synopsis:


Katrina has become a metaphor for many things beyond natural disaster, including governmental and individual incompetence (depending on your point of view). In Iowa there is a 500 year flood, but the people are not paralyzed, whining, or looting. There will be no massive relief effort from around the world, and nobody will step up to help Iowans except for other Iowans. Yet years from now, there will be no Iowans still in FEMA camps.

Nobody will step up to help Iowans? We’ll let that slide for now.

As for the government’s response, one difference in the Midwest is that there was one. At least $2 billion in federal aid is expected in the flooded area. Gov. Pawlenty toured Mower, Houston and Freeborn counties last week, declared it a disaster area, and triggered a review for FEMA help.

President Bush toured the area last week and promised plenty of federal help.

Thousands of acres of farmland has been lost to crops this year, and disaster payments to farmers will help cushion some of the blow.

Of course, the people of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois showed a resiliency in their crisis. Their recovery, however, was a team effort.

  • Frank Bing

    So I go into a McDonald’s in St. Paul yesterday afternoon. The 2 young black guys, with their shirts hanging open, are sitting around the register, carrying on loudly about nothing work-related while the Asian guy is the one who coherently works to get my order. And so I’ve seen countless such situations in my 12 years of living in urban environments, in the Twin Cities and Chicago. If I have opinions based on these experiences, Bob, does that make me racist? I’m really tired of white people making excuses for the behavior of certain large elements of the black population in America, as are many black people. It is time to hold everyone to the same high standards of behavior in our society, no matter what your ethnic group’s disadvantaged history might be.

  • Bob Collins

    //If I have opinions based on these experiences, Bob, does that make me racist?

    If you’re using your anecdotal experience to draw a sweeping conclusion about an entire race, by definition I’m afraid it does, yes.

  • I’m not going to jump off the dock into the racial argument.

    But I think it’s interesting that 11 years ago there was a debate about not rebuilding Grand Forks and other towns in the Red River Valley after that spring’s catastrophic floods; the city is notoriously flood-prone…

    …but not as bad as New Orleans, a city built on a malarial lowland swamp that can only exist because of immense government engineering to keep the river and Lake Ponchartrain at bay even in the best of times.

    As to the discrepancy in coverage? That’s easy; these floods are not a media/PR cudgel to be used against the Administration. The mainstream media just isn’t interested.

    This is worth a post…

  • Sandra

    First of all, one must consider the topography of N.O. It is like a big bowl BELOW sea level. No amount of sandbagging could have kept the water out after the levees broke. Second, when the first levees broke, it occurred without warning. There was no time for sandbagging. More than 2,000 people died or are still missing, including two of my relatives. It is unfortunate that only the most horrific events surrounding the N.O. disaster were covered, because in reality, there were MANY more people, black and white alike, who were not in the dome or on the bridge. They were helping their fellow neighbors, and taking care of themselves as best they could with limited resources. But those stories don’t get the ratings. The stories of resilient and self-reliant people don’t get told. As consumers of the mainstream media news, we must remember that we are only getting one tenth of the story. One must go deeper to find the story behind the story. I encourage my fellow humans to avoid making these tragic events – in N.O. and in the Midwest – about race. Race is a social construct designed to keep us humans apart and in conflict. We must overcome that social construct and look at both events as human tragedies.

  • Bob Collins

    Mitch:

    Google “Should New Orleans be rebuilt.”

  • First of all, one must consider the topography of N.O. It is like a big bowl BELOW sea level.

    Yes, NO is below sea level. I visited the Big Easy about 10 years ago and I was shocked to look *up* to see the Mississippi river.

    And as I have already twittered to Mr. Collins, this sort of racism in the “letter of the day” is not surprising–but it is odiously disheartening.

  • Bob Collins

    Actually, do think the stories of people helping people get told fairly regularly. I can’t think of many newspeople who wouldn’t view those stories as well worth telling.

  • I wonder who’s behind this op-ed meme. I bet it’s the Freepers (neo-con wackos who call themselves the Free Republic) or some coalition of hate groups. Anyone tried researching the names of the letter writers and columnists to see if they are connected to organizations like that? I’d be interested to know how to unravel their thread.

  • Team efforts work much better when there aren’t Blackwater mercs on the ground preventing it…

  • I just can’t believe that made Letter of the Day. Publish it, fine. But letter of the day? Really?

  • MomKat

    News of flooding always brings flashbacks of watching NO drown and wondering why if news folks could report first hand on the disaster, why couldn’t help get in. Bodies floating in the streets of a major American city. People dying in attics. Didn’t Afghanistan offer to send a million dollars or so? A truly defining moment of the Bush administration.

  • Frank Bing

    // //If I have opinions based on these experiences, Bob, does that make me racist?

    //If you’re using your anecdotal experience to draw a sweeping conclusion about an entire race, by definition I’m afraid it does, yes.

    I should have stated that my conclusion is not about the entire race. I suspect others who agree with me (Bill Cosby?) are not judging an entire race, either. Full disclosure to dispel others’ conclusions about me: gay white guy, Democrat, voting for Obama.

  • D

    What amazes me about the comments comparing the midwest flooding to Katrina is the utter lack of comprehension of the scale of the Katrina disaster.

    As a native Iowa Citian, I am fully aware of the terrible devastation of the floods this year.

    But please.

    More than 1800 people lost their lives as a result of Katrina. It caused greater financial losses than the massive floods of 1993, let alone this year’s floods.

    The New Orleans metropolitan area had a population in 2000 of 1.3 million, the vast, vast majority of which had to evacuate for months. Cedar Rapids had a population of 191,000 in 2000. I don’t want to suggest that it hasn’t been a terrible, terrible time for Cedar Rapids, but the comparison is ludicrous.

    The federal government simply did not move quickly enough to help people in need in Katrina, although it was clear almost immediately that the city’s and state’s resources were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the disaster. It was DAYS before national guard troops arrived to help evacuate people out of New Orleans and other Lousiana parishes.

    In Iowa, by contrast, state government was not as overwhelmed and could put a lot of resources into the disaster relief and recovery effort. There were and are thousands of volunteers helping out not because Midwesterners are better volunteers but because there were thousands of people whose own homes were not affected by the floods.

    I watched the maps of the flooding of my native Iowa City for days, and I can tell you that the vast majority of residential neighborhoods were relatively unaffected. There were many more residential neighborhoods affected in Cedar Rapids, but it was still nothing like the impact of Katrina in NO, where you have to factor in the effects of hurricane force winds in addition to the water.

    My heart goes out to the victims of the floods in my native state. But to suggest that the local response was far better than the local response to Katrina is just idiotic.

  • The federal government simply did not move quickly enough to help people in need in Katrina…

    I hear that a lot. Not sure who to believe, but Popular Mechanics ran this article. Seemed pretty fairly reported to me:

    MYTH: “The aftermath of Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history.”–Aaron Broussard, president, Jefferson Parish, La., Meet the Press, NBC, Sept. 4, 2005

    REALITY: Bumbling by top disaster-management officials fueled a perception of general inaction, one that was compounded by impassioned news anchors. In fact, the response to Hurricane Katrina was by far the largest–and fastest-rescue effort in U.S. history, with nearly 100,000 emergency personnel arriving on the scene within three days of the storm’s landfall.

    Dozens of National Guard and Coast Guard helicopters flew rescue operations that first day–some just 2 hours after Katrina hit the coast. Hoistless Army helicopters improvised rescues, carefully hovering on rooftops to pick up survivors. On the ground, “guardsmen had to chop their way through, moving trees and recreating roadways,” says Jack Harrison of the National Guard. By the end of the week, 50,000 National Guard troops in the Gulf Coast region had saved 17,000 people; 4000 Coast Guard personnel saved more than 33,000.

    Short of pre-positioning disaster response units all over the country, I’m not sure what more the federal gov’t can do in the name of rapid response. And yes, I do consider the military an arm of the Federal government.

  • Sorry, I should point out that I’m not arguing against your overall point, D. The issue of scope absolutely makes the two situations incomparable with regards to response time and effectiveness. The existence of roads alone (Iowa still had them) would make a huge difference in the time it took to get responding units into place. And as you point out, the existence of people to help out because the disaster was somewhat localized is vastly different from Katrina where just about everyone was affected.

  • c

    //Full disclosure to dispel others’ conclusions about me: gay white guy, Democrat, voting for Obama.//

    Well there I go stereotyping again: I pictured Frank to be in his mid 40’s, right winged politics, truck driver with balding issues.

  • Bob,

    My response got to be way too long for a comment:

    http://www.shotinthedark.info/wp/?p=2755

    As to googling “Rebuild New Orleans”, I don’t think the debate rose to quite the level of credibility that it did with Grand Forks (and to be fair, it didn’t get all that far there, either).

    In a tangential matter, I’d be interesting to see how many reasonable, rational letters with similar points of view were rejected while this particular howler became “letter of the day”.

    (Bob: To be honest with you, even though I remember the GF flood, I don’t remember the intensity of the “should we rebuild debate.” It’s probably more because I didn’t pay attention to it, however, than it didn’t exist. )

  • Frank Bing

    Ha! C, you’re right about the balding issues, as well as graying (at 31, for shame.) No truck – high mileage sedan here.

  • Bob Collins

    Interesting post, Mitch, but you missed the point entirely.

    The question isn’t whether Midwesterners have communitarianism. It’s whether this is a uniquely Midwestern concept.

    Lots of folks who’ve never lived anywhere else will pridefully say “yes.”

    They’re wrong.

    That’s the point.

  • George Hayduke

    mberg says:

    …but not as bad as New Orleans, a city built on a malarial lowland swamp that can only exist because of immense government engineering to keep the river and Lake Ponchartrain at bay even in the best of times.

    Malarial swamp? When is the last time you’ve heard of malaria in New Orleans, mberg? And how many Midwestern towns on the Mississippi could exist without the “immense government engineering” known as the Corps of Engineers?

    mberg continues with his nonsense:

    As to the discrepancy in coverage? That’s easy; these floods are not a media/PR cudgel to be used against the Administration. The mainstream media just isn’t interested.

    Ooooooh, I get it. Katrina was the fault of Librul Media and Immense Gummint. Boy, where would we be without mberg to figger things out?

    The vast differences in the two catastrophes–deaths, property damage and total incapacitation of a major U.S. city for weeks and weeks–have been well documented here already. Any comparison between the two is absurd.

  • //Interesting post, Mitch, but you missed the point entirely.//

    No, I got the point – I also noted that communitarianism is present all over the place (you missed my references to New York and small Deep South towns, right?). OF COURSE it’s not uniquely midwestern; that was way up top in my piece.

    I was more interested in addressing in my post the underlying points by you (that the letter to the editor is especially representative of attitudes around here) and the ChiTrib piece (that the floods are exposing a “surge” of racism).

    Mr. Hayduke:

    //Ooooooh, I get it. Katrina was the fault of Librul Media and Immense Gummint.//

    The word is “liberal”, and yes, there’s a case to be made that goverment has displaced organic communitarianism. It’d be a “unintended consequence” of government intervention.

    // Boy, where would we be without mberg to figger things out?//

    Lost in a miasma of meaningless cliche?

  • Oh, what the heck:

    //Malarial swamp? When is the last time you’ve heard of malaria in New Orleans, mberg?

    Irrelevant. When it was founded, it certainly was – and that, as luck’d have it, was what I was addressing.

    //And how many Midwestern towns on the Mississippi could exist without the “immense government engineering” known as the Corps of Engineers?//

    Strawman. Of course it’s taken a century or more of flood-control efforts to make life along the *entire* Mississippi (among many others) tenable. But that, as it happens, had nothing to do with my point.