Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The impact of natural disasters in rural America

I have written a bit about the difference rurality makes in a nation's ability (or will?) to respond to natural disasters. I mused about it here in the wake of the Sichuan province earthquake in China this spring, and here and here after flooding in the midwest a few weeks later. Keep in mind that not only is it often more difficult to reach rural places with relief following a disaster, as recovery proceeds, these communities generally have much less developed and extensive social service infrastructures to meet ongoing needs.

A couple of stories in the wake of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav have also featured rural datelines. One story on NPR this morning was out of Fannett, Texas. Although Fanette is part of the Beaumont-Port Arthur Metropolitan Area, it is unincorporated and has an estimate population of 105. The lede is below; later, the story suggests that relief is slower to reach rural places than urban ones.
Many small towns in Texas have been devastated by Hurricane Ike. The agricultural community of Fannett, Texas, was flattened by the storm. Residents are returning in hopes of reclaiming what was left behind. But many are finding their valuable livestock dead.
(Photo of cows on state highway 73, by Marisa Penaloza for NPR).

This story ran on 2 Sept. 2008 in the New York Times, a few days after Hurricane Gustav. The dateline is Pearlington, Mississippi, and the headline, "To rebuild or to leave?" Here's the lede, and an excerpt that also tells of government neglect of rural places:
With every drenching storm, this little fishing town gets a little closer to oblivion. Residents watched with sadness three years ago as Hurricane Katrina cut the population in half, to about 1,000 people, and on Monday, Hurricane Gustav poured water into about 100 homes.

Now, Pearlington once again finds itself facing a painful question: Is it worth it to rebuild?
* * *
Many residents said they felt trapped and ignored. Pearlington — one of Mississippi’s oldest Gulf Coast communities, settled in the 1770s — still does not have daily mail service three years after Hurricane Katrina. The school has not been rebuilt, nor have many homes, as post-hurricane aid has been concentrated in other areas.

Monday brought uncomfortably familiar feelings. Once again, the world focused on New Orleans, 40 miles to the west, as if the suffering of Pearlington did not exist.

“It’s frustrating,” said Jonathan Dianese, 39, recalling Hurricane Katrina. “New Orleans had a levee break. They didn’t get smacked by the storm like we did.”

I am glad, in the midst of media focus on Houston and Galveston (and a few weeks ago, New Orleans), that there is at least a bit of awareness of the impact of these storms on rural places. Perhaps the federal government's neglect of rural America in circumstances like these helps explain the skepticism of big government so often associated with rurality.

Postscript: Two weeks after Hurricane Ike, the New York Times ran this story on the same region of Texas as covered in the NPR report above.

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