Friday, September 16, 2005

Why I Stayed

Columnist Rainbow Rowell published a story about my escape from New Orleans that appeared on September 7th in the Omaha World Herald (To read it you need to register, sorry about that). Three days later a reader commented in the Public Pulse section that my decision to stay in New Orleans for the hurricane was "foolish" and "reckless." I responded with the following letter, of which an edited version appeared yesterday:

First, as part of the Gulf Coast diaspora due to Hurricane Katrina, my family and I would like to thank the hundreds of friends, family, and good Samaritans in Omaha who have so graciously and generously helped us to cope with our relocation. Our children are in Sunset Hills Elementary, a great school, and incidentally the same school I attended when I grew up in Omaha. People have donated clothes and other supplies, and we have seen first hand how truly blessed this community is.

Second, Tim Wade wrote in the Sept. 10th Public Pulse that my "decision to stay behind couldn't have been more reckless." While my wife and two kids evacuated New Orleans before the hurricane, I chose to stay behind with my two dogs and other pets in our house to ride out the storm. I am sure people in the Midwest have a hard time understanding why everyone didn't evacuate. Unlike hundreds of thousands of people in the New Orleans area, poverty was not a factor in my decision. However, there were no places to evacuate to that took animals, and I was not willing to leave them. I was certain that my house would be OK from the hurricane winds, as it did well against Betsy and other storms over the past 100 years. Also, our house is surrounded by some very secure buildings, and our entire neighborhood fared quite well from the winds, though our house does now lean due to the storm. I also extensively prepared with several months worth of food, water, and even dog food. If I were in New Orleans in my home I would still be fine today, and I have heard that the water has been pumped out of my neighborhood. I also felt that by staying in New Orleans I could help save lives and even volunteer my services at various places in need. It is so incredibly difficult to watch this tragedy unfold a thousand miles away. At least when I was there helping to distribute food and checking on people's welfare I could sleep well at night knowing that I was directly contributing to the relief effort. Finally, by staying I was able to bear witness to both the incredible highs and lows of the human condition. I am a university professor who specializes in Hebrew Bible, and because I stayed I will not only be a better teacher, but also a better father, husband, and citizen.

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