Broken levees let racially-charged rhetoric flow


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.