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Victims of the hurricane: Responsibility or burden?

September 15, 2005

In the biblical story about sibling rivalry gone tragically wrong, Cain, the firstborn son of Adam and Eve, kills his brother Abel.

Then God appears and asks Cain where his brother is, though the deity certainly knows the answer.

Cain lies, saying he does not know, then adds the famous quip that condemns him:

"Am I my brother's keeper?"

We thought about that story when we read the story about PenMar Development Corporation's board debating whether it could take any of the evacuees from Hurricane Katrina.

The board, which ultimately decided to take eight families, heard a catalog of reasons why sheltering any more than that would be difficult, if not impossible.

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Board member Mike DiLandro, who said it might sound "cold-hearted," warned that PenMar would be responsible for the evacuees and would probably get little help from outside agencies.

In addition, he said, the base's remote location would make it difficult for evacuees to reach basic services, such as medical care and food supplies.

Would anyone be saying such things if the evacuees were Williamsport residents fleeing from a Potomac River flood?

We doubt it. Our point in asking the question is to emphasize that if we are a nation, as opposed to a collection of tribes and clans, the victims of Katrina are fellow Americans who need our help.

The correct course was not to begin with the assumption that they couldn't be helped here, but to consider how to overcome the obstacles to providing them with shelter.

Now, ironically, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent word that it is not planning to send masses of evacuees here. FEMA officials didn't say why, but county officials speculated it might be because victims want to remain in the Gulf Coast area.

No doubt, going from balmy New Orleans to a chilly Western Maryland mountaintop would be a shock.

But it probably would beat staying in a shelter on a cot, particularly if some of the caring people of Washington County were helping out, as we know they would have.

Of course, PenMar's mission is not to help storm victims, but to create new jobs. But sometimes, just as a storm thrusts itself on a coastline, the opportunity - and the responsibility - to help the unfortunate is thrust upon those who do not expect it.

In this case, PenMar was spared from doing much. Given its reluctance, Katrina's victims are probably better off with people who will see them as brothers and sisters in need, as opposed to unwanted burdens.

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