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Punish Katrina victims who did not evacuate?

September 08, 2005

After considering what to do about people who refuse to leave areas threatened by natural disasters, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania, has come up with an idea - penalize them.

Coming from a man who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for president, it's a sorry statement.

Santorum first made the remarks in a weekend TV interview, then clarified them after the adverse reactions began.

Santorum said Tuesday he meant people who had the means to leave, but didn't. He said he was not talking about people who didn't have cars or other resources.

There is no reasoning with some people in the face of possible destruction. No doubt many readers remember Harry Truman, the 84-year-old innkeeper who refused to leave his land even though experts warned that Mt. St. Helens was ready to erupt in 1980.

Truman stayed and was killed, even though he had the ability to get out of harm's way.

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Did the people of New Orleans who refused to leave have the means to leave?

The Associated Press did a analysis of Census Bureau data which found that those in the path of Katrina were twice as likely as most Americans to have a poverty-level income. Many also lacked a car.

In neighborhoods that were heavily damaged, the AP analysis found that median income was $32,000 - $10,000 below the national average.

AP also found that 25 percent of those in the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina were below the national poverty line, which is twice the national average.

Statistics aside, the victims were overwhelmingly poor and probably more than a little suspicious of the government. At the time they were being asked to leave, there was no agreement about where they would go, or how long it would be before they would be allowed to come back home.

Of course, not leaving was irrational, but so is rushing to the supermarket before a snowstorm or filling up your gas tank based on a rumor that the pumps will soon be closed.

Instead of punishing people for risking their lives, Santorum and other members of Congress need to make sure that the next time people in the path of a storm are asked to leave, government officials can tell them where they're going and what awaits them when they get there.

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