by Paul Harris
(written as a letter to the U-T editor)
During the nightmarish firestorms in Southern California many individuals and some of the press compared the wildfires to Hurricane Katrina and more specifically the evacuation center at Qualcomm Stadium to the New Orleans Superdome. I do not in any way wish to diminish the horrific losses of life, homes, and despair that many of our residents have gone through, but to make such a comparison goes far beyond comparing apples to oranges. For comparison, the relative estimated statistics are almost unfathomable.
For starters, let us try to contemplate that about 200 times as many people were killed during Katrina as during the wildfires! At least 100 times as many homes were destroyed during Katrina. Almost 100 times as much financial damage was caused by Katrina. As for Qualcomm Stadium, officials definitely learned some lessons from the Superdome. Evacuees to Qualcomm (“refugees” as the Superdome evacuees were labeled) numbered about 15,000. In the Superdome were about 25,000 residents. Qualcomm residents generally stayed a maximum of 4 days, had running water, working electricity, limited shower facilities, TVs, communication to the outside, fairly decent weather, working toilets and toilet paper, entertainment, heroes, ample security, tons of supplies donated by caring Americans, gift baskets, visits by dignitaries & politicians, cots, blankets, days without knowing if their homes still existed, looters, people taking more than their fair share, false rumors about the ability to return home, and fear and frustration.
Superdome residents, including at least two of us San Diego residents, had no running water, no showers, overflowing toilets, and only backup generator electricity after the first day. They generally stayed for a maximum of 6 days, had no central communication after the first day, 95 degree temperatures with 90% humidity inside and outside the Dome, unfounded rumors of rapes and murders, waits in line for food and water for several hours, no showers, much loved entertainment consisting of a clown and a professional violinist, heroes, fear of no more food and water, an in-adequate number of National Guardsmen & police to keep control, weeks without knowing if their loved ones and homes still existed, sleeping on either stadium chairs or urine-soaked cardboard, and only visits by the Mayor, who was staying next door to the Superdome 24 hours a day.
The Federal government stepped up to offer assistance immediately after the firestorms. The Federal government wasn’t even aware till 3 days later that 15,000 people were starving at the New Orleans Convention Center, and disallowed many would be heroes and the Red Cross from coming to the Superdome and city to offer assistance and save future victims from certain death, as well as turning down some foreign aid.
Local heroic residents, city, county, state, and Federal officials were on the scene to assist immediately after the fires started.
Local heroic residents, city, county, and state officials were on the scene to assist Katrina victims immediately after the hurricane. The Canadian Mounties were on the scene to offer assistance sooner than FEMA.
Four days after the fires, a horrendous disaster that caused about 5% of the devastation that Katrina caused, President Bush promised to help out as best he could.
Two weeks after Katrina struck, President Bush appeared in New Orleans and promised, “Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.” After Hurricane Andrew and 9/11, President Bush completely waived the Stafford Act requirement that New York and Florida (both far wealthier than those areas destroyed by Katrina) provide 10% of matching funds up front from local funding before receiving federal aid for rebuilding projects. He refused to waive this requirement for the Gulf Coast.
Qualcomm residents were free to come and go from the stadium and many were shocked when suddenly told they would have to leave after 5 days. After all, a Chargers game was scheduled for Sunday.
And finally, those of us imprisoned in the Superdome were prohibited from leaving and told we would be shot or arrested if we left, and were shocked when they finally told us the truth, and the vast majority were able to leave after 6 days.
So for those of you in San Diego who have made statements that people are crazy to want to rebuild in hurricane prone areas, I pose one question. Are these feelings consistent with your feelings about your neighbors who plan to rebuild in areas that are at an equal or greater risk with the combined fire and earthquake threats, as the hurricane threat in New Orleans every few decades?
I have offered my hopes, sincerest thoughts, dollars and my home for temporary lodging to those in San Diego who have suffered unbelievable losses. I just hope we don’t ever forget to continue giving to those along the Gulf Coast who survived a disaster many times the magnitude of ours in Southern California.
Paul Harris is a Clairemont resident (previously O.B.) who has written a soon to be released book entitled, Diary From the Dome.