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Should Living Paycheck To Paycheck Be A Crime Punishable By Death In Floodwater?

“It’s their own fault, really. Why didn’t those people just evacuate when they had the chance?” I overheard one woman saying to another in the line at the grocery store. I shielded my face with a box of frozen waffles and pretended to read the National Enquirer while I eavesdropped some more.

She, like many, was convinced that what we’re seeing on the 6 o’ clock news is merely Darwinism in action. And the unfit are not surviving.

Unfit people, like single mom Mabel Brown.

Mabel wanted to leave but couldn’t get gas for her aging car, all the stations were closed. A New Orleans newcomer who just moved there from Atlanta, Mabel’s instincts told her to take the $20 dollars she had in cash and get out. But her sisters had lived in New Orleans for years. And they told her hurricanes were scary but if they had candles they would be okay.

But then the water started rising. Mabel checked every 20 minutes and counted how many of the outside steps were covered up. When the water was up to the 7th step, she knew they were in trouble. But it was dark, and they couldn’t leave their apartment and walk through the water in the pitch-black city.

“We knew there were alligators and snakes in the water because we were next to the Bayou, so we were afraid to get in the water in the dark, we couldn’t have seen where we were going.”

So she and her sister went onto the porch and started fires with their furniture trying to flag down helicopters to rescue them and their 6 kids.

The next morning the water was up to step 14, Mabel told the kids “Get up, put on long sleeve pants and shirts, put on some shoes, and we’re going to walk through the water.” At 5’6” the water was up to Mabel’s chin. Her two daughters age 8 and 13 could swim so she dragged them along beside her.

Her sister and her niece couldn’t swim and they were too short to keep their heads above, so Mabel got her sister’s two older boys to put them on their backs. In water up to their necks, Mabel told the group to feel for the sidewalk with their feet so they could keep their footing.

They made their way through the oozing trash filled muck for over two miles to get the still day bridge overlooking the Super Dome. They waited for five hours, watching bodies float by, trying desperately to get one of the police cars or buses to take them out of the city.

“We saw the buses, but they wouldn’t let people on. One guy opened his door and we thought we were going to get on, but they went to take all the prisoners out of the jails.”

She decided to leave on her own, “I’m seeing bodies tied to the pole so I said, if I have to walk all the way to Baton Rouge that was my plan.” But then the water started rising on the other side of the bridge.

Mabel asked policeman after policeman what to do “But everybody told us something different. I kept seeing buses going toward the Super Dome, so I realized that was where I better go.”

As the crowd around them on the bridge got wilder and wilder, Mabel gave up her spot on dry concrete, grabbed her sister, the six kids, and waded back down into knee high muck to get inside the Dome with the hopes that one of the buses would get her family to safety.

Mabel and the crew entered the Dome and found utter mayhem. With buses sitting right outside, the crowd grew crazier by the minute. Everyone was panicking that the other levee near the Dome was going to break and they would all be washed away. Bedlam broke out, guns were being fired inside the dome, there were no lights in the rest room.

“People were losing their kids, crazy men were snatching kids bringing them in the bathroom and raping them.” A woman told Mabel a 2-year-old had died from rape. Mabel kept her two daughters beside her

“We were stuck together like glue.”

Finally they were told that the buses, still sitting right outside would be loading in the morning. Sitting in a chair, normally reserved for a screaming Saints fan, Mabel spent the night with her arms wrapped around her two kids wondering if the levee was going to break, the dome was going to catch fire, or worse, she might fall asleep and lose her grip on her kids.

At 4 o’clock the next afternoon, after 24 hours in hell, Mabel and her kids were loaded like cattle on buses headed for Houston.

Seven hours later Mabel’s bus pulled into the Astrodome parking lot. She was told to stay on the bus and wait until they could check her in.

“But I counted the number of buses and realized it would take forever for them to get to us, so I got my kids off and we walked into the Dome.”

Mabel checked herself in. They were provided showers, clothes and food. “They were out of blankets so they gave us sweaters. We found boxes, broke them apart and laid the kids down.” Mabel managed to find her mother, and her other three sisters with their kids, all had made it onto buses to escape the SuperDome.

Finally at 3 AM that night the whole family stretched out in a walkway and went to sleep. Mabel woke up at dawn. They had volunteers helping them, but aside from food and water, there didn’t seem much anyone could do.

That’s when Mabel decided she needed to figure a way out.

“I remembered seeing a Sprint store near the dome as bus came in.” Mabel had a Sprint phone somewhere lost in the muck of New Orleans. “I left my kids with my sister and walked two blocks over there and bought a new phone. They said they would charge my account $55.00.”

“Once I got back, me and my sister started getting numbers off the bulletin board and calling.”

She made some calls, tracked down the manager of the hotel she used to work for in Atlanta and got herself a job. Now she just had to get here.

Mabel called the SouthWest Unitarian church office. She left a message on their machine saying that she wanted to get back to Georgia. They picked up the message that morning and because they knew my suburban Atlanta congregation was trying to help people, they called me.

Mabel’s sleeping in my guest room right now. Her kids are in my daughter’s rooms, and her three sisters, her mother and her 12 nieces and nephews are asleep in houses up and down my block.

I wish I could say I swooped in like a white knight and saved Mabel, but I didn’t. All I could do was use my Internet connection and my phone to run interference for the most resourceful woman in America as she saved herself – and 18 members of her family.

I listened on the other end of her cell while she unsuccessfully tried to get a FEMA person help her get on a bus to Atlanta, despite Mabel telling her that Greyhound had specifically told us to check in with FEMA before booking, and giving the woman the exact departure time of the Atlanta bus leaving the Greyhound station 2 miles away.

I waited while she asked the rest of her extended family if they wanted to take the word of a stranger on the phone and go to Atlanta where people they had never met were supposed to be waiting to take them into their homes.

After we gave up on FEMA and I bought the tickets myself, I talked to a desperate Red Cross worker who called everyone she could, but was finally forced to tell me they had no way to get Mabel’s family from the Astrodome to the Greyhound station.

I waited while the Houston Unitarian minister I found via the Internet drove down to the Dome to search for Mabel and her family. I listened as he heartbreakingly told them that despite 20 phone calls to churches all over Houston, we couldn’t corral a church bus to take 19 of them to Greyhound in time to make the Atlanta bus. So after 8 days of struggling they now had to get themselves organized to take the light rail across the street from the Dome to the bus station.

I agonized as the woman at the bus station ticket counter told Mabel that because all the tickets had been paid for over the phone via credit card, she couldn’t hold tickets for the sister whose family hadn’t gotten there yet- even though the tickets had open-ended dates.

I started to cry when I heard Mabel breaking down, because the woman refused to talk to me.

I about fell out of my chair when I heard Mabel sniff away her tears and ask to speak to a supervisor. Telling her politely but firmly “I need you to put my sister’s name on these tickets and hold them because I’ve got to get my kids on this bus.”

I nervously sat by the phone for hours wondering if Mabel had made it on the bus. I finally heaved a sigh of relief when Mabel called from another number saying her phone had been cut off but she was on the bus and had borrowed a phone from a guy in the back row.

I seethed as I waited in line at the Sprint store.

I about committed bodily harm when I discovered that Mabel’s phone had been cut off because all her minutes on the phone with me, had put her over her prepaid account limit. The phone she had bought only one day earlier outside the Astrodome, wearing her hurricane refugee bracelet, explaining to the clerk that her other phone had been lost in the muck when she swam her kids out of New Orleans

I scrambled to get together our cooler of food when Mabel called to tell me that because the bus didn’t make any of the usual Louisiana stops, there were getting in three hours early.

I wept when my minivan-driving PTA mom friend and I finally wrapped our arms around Mabel and her children.

I groaned when coming out of the bus station, two white women who hadn’t been in a bus station in 15 years, discovered their vans booted, because the guy who came up and told me to give him $5 dollars must not have been a parking attendant after all.

I rolled my eyes when the real parking guy – who was watching the lot from across the street and must have booted our cars the second we went in the station – wouldn’t take pity on two clueless suburban moms, and a crowd of hurricane-shocked kids clinging to their mothers.

By the time you read this, my church will have fed Mabel’s family and all her sisters’ families’ breakfast. And my neighborhood will have delivered 19 duffel bags filled with clothes, toys and toiletries for each one. I suspect Mabel will probably still be asleep.

I’ve got a $1400 Amex bill coming for the 19 Greyhound tickets from Houston to Atlanta. I paid Sprint 50 bucks for cutting Mabel’s phone back on. And my friend and I will both grimace when the ABS parking charge shows up on our Mastercards.

But if you’d have told me two weeks ago that $1500 and a phone call from a single mom who worked as a maid in New Orleans would transform my neighborhood and church into the kind of people we’ve always wanted to be, I would have written you a check on the spot.

And if you’d have told me that the bravest smartest women I ever met was about to pay me a visit, I would have bought better sheets.

Before they all went to bed, Mabel’s 8-year-old daughter asked me if the President was the one who finally got them out.

I told her the truth, “Honey, the President didn’t get you out, the Governor didn’t get you out, the Mayor didn’t get you out. Your mamma got you out of there.”

And anybody tries to wake up Mabel in the next 24 hours, they’re gonna have to go through me.

(C)Copyright 2005, by Lisa Earle McLeod. All rights reserved.

2005 by

About the author: Lisa Earle McLeod is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of Forget Perfect. You can learn more about Ms. McLeod by visiting her web site Forget Perfect.