Is the USA the bad boyfriend you just can’t leave?
I watched the destruction from my Best Western hotel room. It didn’t seem real, the hurricane devouring my city, but it was. It looked like maybe it wasn’t so bad…… But the next day all of that changed. The levees in New Orleans broke from the influx of water due to hurricane Katrina. My city was always rumored to be a “bowl” surrounded by water. The bowl was filling up with water that was polluted by chemicals from our nearby petro chemical industry, as well as the sewers backing up. People who had thought that they missed the worst of it were stuck and the water was rising faster and faster.
It was like watching a house fire from inside of a locked cage. My people were dying, and I couldn’t do anything about it. They were climbing on their roofs or getting trapped in their attics and no one was there to get them out. I felt so helpless.
3 days later my boyfriend’s brother was still unaccounted for. I suggested that we go and look for him as his mother was freaking out. I was living in the waterfront community of Slidell, La at the time and it didn’t have levees, but it had gotten a tidal wave. We made the difficult decision to drive from my safe hotel in St. Francisville, La and go to look for the brother. (I was extremely blessed because I’d been given a free room in St. Francisville from a movie I was working on. “The Reaping” production saved my life.) I was pregnant so driving 3 hours through complete destruction was scary. There were no gas stations open along the way. We filled up in St. Francisville. Gas was very expensive, and you could only get one tank. We brought 2 small water bottles and no food. It was dumb. If we broke down or got a flat tire, we would be stuck.
We found the very dehydrated brother and were blown away by the destruction. Dogs ran free looking terrified. We were told that people had been told to leave their pets behind to get on buses that would take them to Utah! What??!! Utah? Why Utah? There was zero preparation for this. It was a mess.
My own home was an old A-frame fishing camp that was raised 12 feet off the ground. Sadly, the tidal wave had been 15 feet. Many of my neighbors had to “swim for it.” Some of them didn’t make it.
I had dead fish in my house and about 5 chemical drums full of who-knew-what. Surrounding my house was debris about 5 feet deep. In the debris was a live dog wearing a life jacket. The dog had been in the debris for 5 days at the point that we found him. His leg was badly broken and smelled of rot. I was panicked. Where was the owner? Was he under my house too? I found a police officer nearby and explained to him that I was worried that there was a human trapped under my house. As he calmly ate his sandwich he said: “They’ll find him……. eventually.” I couldn’t do anything. I was helpless.
George W. Bush flew over to view the carnage. The big joke was that we all wished he’d drop some cases of water from the plane. His director, Michael Brown, was clearly botching the whole thing, yet President Bush famously said: “You’re doing a heckuva job, ‘Brownie.’” Another fun joke was New Orleanians making their own “Heckuva job brownies” as a popular dessert option. We had to laugh, or we’d lose it. Sound familiar?
About a week after that first visit, I decided that I needed to see the theater I ran in uptown New Orleans. I was warned against going. People said that there were dead bodies being eaten by released dogs. But I had to know. (The dogs weren’t eating people, by the way.)
We went with a friend of mine who is a documentary filmmaker. Again, it was surreal. We were able to cross on the highway 11 bridge as the other bridge into town was out. Once inside the city, there were armed guards keeping us out. Luckily, we were able to sneak into another route. But armed guards?? Really?
We got to the theater. I pushed the door open. The stench of raw sewage was overwhelming. I looked around and said: “Ok. I’m good.” 30 seconds to view my life’s work.
I went back to St. Francisville to my crappy hotel room that I was so grateful for. More and more of the lower income New Orleanians started showing up at my hotel. Interestingly, once that happened things changed. We were forced to attend “meetings” every morning where different people scolded us or told us new rules. It sucked. I couldn’t wait for filming to start again.
One day there was a knock at the door. A military guy in uniform stood in the doorway. He told me that I was required to get vaccinated. Keep in mind I was hiding a pregnancy. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was pregnant. But very few vaccines are recommended for pregnant woman. It could be dangerous for the baby. I told the soldier that I was pregnant. He didn’t care. He said I was required by the US government to get a hepatitis shot. I asked why? He said that if we wanted to get back into New Orleans, we had to get that shot. I told him I had already been back in the city. He responded that I probably already had hepatitis. (What the what??!)
I went down to the lobby as he wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. I saw some other actor friends. They didn’t know I was pregnant, but I told them I didn’t want to take the shots. I agreed to a flu shot and then told them I wanted to bail. They covered for me as I snuck out. I literally ran out. Did you ever think that the government could force you to get vaccinated against your will? I did not. But I was not offered a choice in this situation.
I ran a theater in New Orleans with about 60 actors. Over the next month I received calls from 52 actors. They all said some version of this: “The hurricane is a sign from god that I need to move to Los Angeles/New York/London/Austin. Sorry.” My response was one of two things: 1) Inconsolable weeping or 2) “Screw you! How could you leave me??” But then one of my actors called. He told me that as he rode out the storm in his laundry room, the hurricane made him realize that the only things that mattered in his life were his family and my theater.
Like many actors, I’m an egomaniac. The most attractive thing to me in romantic partners is that they be attracted TO me. That is pretty much it. So, an actor telling me that I was changing his life was all I needed to commit years of my life to rebuilding a city that had been completely destroyed.
Besides, this was MY CITY. These were MY PEOPLE. I was heartbroken at the idea that our government was allowing people to remain trapped in their attics and die. I HAD to do everything I could to rebuild at all personal cost.
I lived in mold. I probably drank lead-contaminated water. I watched my old students tour around the country and get a hero’s welcome at comedy festivals. But I stayed put. After all, why make an easy choice when you can make a hard one?
I owned quite a bit of property before Katrina. I was building a little real estate empire. All of it flooded and I’ve never been the same. One of my little buildings got 10 feet of water in it. I had it insured. But insurance is quite different if your one house burns down vs your entire city flooding. The insurance companies don’t want to pay out for a whole city. I fought and fought and fought. I had the building insured for $150,000. The insurance company said it wasn’t a total loss despite the 10 feet of sewer water in there for 2 weeks. So, they gave me $75,000….after making me wait a year. It wasn’t enough to fix the house. The bank wanted their money, so I kept paying the mortgage. I begged and begged, and they wouldn’t budge. Ultimately, I gave them back the house. There had been word of small rental assistance grants, but you had to pass an inspection to prove the house was livable and I couldn’t afford to get the house to be livable. They foreclosed. The house went to a sheriff sale and the bank bought it back at a steep discount and wrote off the difference.
I had another small property that I was trying to rent out, but big developers were poised to grab all the grants and get their new construction open for business. It was impossible to compete. Would you rather a house that had been flooded with raw sewage or new construction? Duh.
You couldn’t find contractors in town. When a whole city is destroyed contractors are in high demand. Competition is steep. I finally got a referral from a friend of an electrician. He charged me $10,000 up front and then cashed my check and left town. I never got a penny of that money back and there was so much fraud that the authorities couldn’t handle it all. My friend who referred him felt badly. She said she wished she had told me that he had a crack addiction before she referred him. (Yeah, me too!)
But I rebuilt the theater. I had my daughter. I was given a FEMA trailer. By the time it arrived my baby’s father had bought a house and we were living in the garage of that house. It was better because a lot of people got leukemia from the FEMA trailers.
The moral of the story is that Hurricane Katrina was a shitshow. We, as New Orleanians, were told to release our animals, get on buses to Utah, were left to die in hot attics, and had armed guards keeping us out of our city. We were competing with disaster capitalists who were poised to take advantage of the situation. Many of us wondered if things were so bad for us because we were a city that was about 70% black. Would it have been better if we were from Santa Barbara, California or somewhere with more of a fair-skinned population? Would their people be justifying their right to federal help? I don’t know. I only know that there was lots of talk about how maybe New Orleans didn’t need to be rebuilt. That maybe we were a “waste of money.”
So why did I stay? 2 words: Loyalty and guilt. I stayed because I was loyal to my city and my people. My aggressive Catholic upbringing taught me guilt. I’m great at guilt. I have a master’s degree in guilt. I felt guilty about abandoning my city.
It took YEARS for us to be normal again. It took years not to be a disaster zone. It sucked. I felt as though my government left us to die.
I thought it was an accident. Poor planning? Wasn’t it a one-time thing never to be repeated? But I’ve seen this scenario play out again and again. It’s no accident. The most obvious time was hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. It was shocking to some people that the government response was so poor. But it wasn’t shocking to me. It’s an opportunity. Disaster capitalists take advantage of the crisis. I wanted to yell: “Get out!! Don’t stay!” to all of those people who expected not to be treated like crap.
I watched a movie with my little boy called “The Good Dinosaur.” In the film there is a bad storm and there are a group of pterodactyls who initially appear to help the little dinosaur. Their leader says: “the storm provides.” Later we find out that the storm “provides” by trapping helpless animals whom the carnivorous pterodactyls eat.
The storm provides. But for whom?
Am I saying that the government takes advantage of crisis situations in such a way that certain people benefit, and others don’t? Yes, yes I am.
Our country is an oligarchy. As time goes on, we are seeing that more and more.
Yet we stay out of loyalty and guilt. Why? Because we are indoctrinated from a young age to believe that we must. We are told that leaving our country is unpatriotic. If we disagree with any of our government’s policies, we are told that: “if we don’t like it here we should go somewhere else.” It’s not intended as a good thing. If we investigate investments in other countries, we are viewed as unpatriotic. If we expose our own government for crimes like spying on their own citizens or killing civilians, we are traitors.
So why do we stay? Our healthcare/health insurance system is arguably the worst in the world. We cannot survive on our Social Security pensions. Our corporate system has completely gutted us. Our children cannot begin to afford to attend our colleges. So why do we stay?
Is the USA a bad boyfriend whom we cannot break up with? Is he kind of abusive but he sounds good on paper? Is he good-looking but kind of a douchebag?
Many other countries don’t tolerate having their population starve in the street. Nor are they ok with them choosing between medicine and food. But we are. Why?
A friend of mine says that the USA is exceptionally good at exporting 2 things: war and Hollywood. I’d have to agree.
I was reading an article today about how you could potentially live in Columbia for $1,000/mo. Wow. There’s no way that you could live on that, here.. So why do we settle? Because we’ve been told that we have to?
You don’t have to stay. It’s ok to leave and seek out a better life. It’s ok to leave for a while and come back later. It’s ok to draw your Social Security that you worked your ass off for and use it in another country that won’t force you to survive on cat food in your old age. It’s ok. If you ever needed permission to leave, here it is. You can walk away from this dysfunctional relationship. I won’t judge you. If you are a person of color, you don’t have to stay and risk your life to affect change. You don’t have to put your children’s lives in harm’s way either. Rest. Take a break. Take a load off. We got you and we might BE you one day. It’s ok to want nice things. In this case the nice things are healthcare and a decent quality of life.
As of this writing, we can’t leave the USA because of our poor handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Only 14 countries will let us in. But when we CAN leave, it’s OK to consider leaving.
You aren’t a rat for jumping off the sinking ship. Remember: only the captain is required to go down with the ship. None of us are the captain of this sinking ship.
Are you settling for that “bad boyfriend” that is the USA? Is it time to leave? You don’t have to be afraid. You can always go back to the bad boyfriend. I mean, maybe he’ll change? Or stop being violent? Or maybe he’ll start paying for things that you want? Like universal health care? Hey, we can always dream………
Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll find true love elsewhere (and it will include affordable dental care.) Guuuurl, (or guy,) you deserve better. It’s out there, waiting for you.
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