If you are looking for this week’s poembound update, check back in a week or so. Thursday night we had a tornado, so there was no school and no workshop.

I’ve just been out with my son. We had in mind trying to check on some friends, and then get over to WalMart; we also knew the president was coming and wondered if we’d be able to see him.

We spent about an hour trying to get over to WalMart and the neighborhood at that end of town where some friends live. The destructive power of the storm and the tornadoes was incredible. We wound around in the historic district and the poor areas behind the hospital, which was devastated. On the “nice” streets, i.e. the middle to upper middle class areas, there were tree services, police everywhere — including many officers from out of town who had no idea how I could get over to WalMart — and lots and lots of electric company crews. There were so many police and so many areas blocked off that we finally gave up and were about to go home, when we decided to try and go a different way. I was sure it would be blocked off, as it was the area we’d heard was most seriously damaged. To my great surprise, there was no police barricade, and no one directing traffic away. So we proceeded, cautiously.

You know what’s coming next . . . in the area behind the hospital and beyond, which is a neighborhood that was absolutely smashed, we saw power lines in the street, utility poles leaning over the street or on top of people’s cars, in yards, etc. Houses, beyond description. One house had no roof and no walls — but somehow the inside looked just as it was. The bed was even made. We saw trees that looked like they’d exploded. Pieces of metal hanging in trees. Cars smashed. A large trash can, hanging in a downed tree. Trees too big to get your arms around, uprooted. Trees on roofs, on porches, on houses, sticking out of houses. Houses that looked like they’d just crumpled. Not only no electricity here, no phone, and where water lines broke, no water.

In every street, there were neighbors walking around, people helping each other, but we saw only one utility crew, and no police. It’s hard not to make the connection that people in this neighborhood are not getting help quickly because they can’t afford it. I know from having several trees down in our own yard that it’s expensive to hire a tree service. I know the power is off, so the lines are dead, but no utility crews had even been by to get the downed lines off the street. There were wires hanging and laying everywhere. After a few minutes we realized that there was no way we were going to get through to WalMart that way either, unless we wanted to sit in the car and burn off our gas. The streets are very narrow, and there were lots of cars trying to get through. We decided it wasn’t that important and turned back.

We checked in with my husband, who said the local radio station was reporting that the president would be speaking in the parking lot of the former wellness center (now a wrecked building), so we parked near the hospital and started walking that way. We fell in with 4 young men, who were excited that the president was going to be there. We tried to turn down a street and were yelled at by a state trooper, despite the fact that three others had watched us go that way. We drifted down the side street, hoping we could turn and wind our way through. The teens began to cut through yards, but there was broken glass and debris everywhere, so my son & I stayed on the street.

We’d heard the helicopters go over, and my husband called back to say the president was reportedly on the ground. We saw some dark cars, so I said “Let’s stop, it looks like he’s coming right by.” When we turned around, the motorcade stopped. There were not many people around — I’d say less than twenty. We were right in front of the house with no walls. People began jumping out of the cars. I began to shake as we realized — holy cow, he’s getting out right here. We were literally just a few feet away. Some people went straight to him, but we kind of hung back a bit, taking photos. Then the governor saw me trying to get my son to look at me so I could take a photo with the president beyond him, and put his arm around him and said, “Come on son, you can meet him.”

A few seconds later, President Bush was shaking my son’s hand . . . . and my camera battery died. The governor teased me about that! I shook the president’s hand too. He looked directly at each person he shook hands with. I thanked him for coming, and asked him, “Please get help to our town.” He said “tough times.” I was so flustered I didn’t say it well. What I really worry about is the hospital. It’s the only one in the county, and it serves a very wide area. Of course, I was also pretty worried about what I’d seen.

The president was very gracious as he greeted people. He acted like he had all the time in the world. He hugged and kissed people, asked how they were, whether their homes were damaged. Asked if they’d been in the storm. He was also clearly aware of himself — he carried himself, for lack of a better word, presidentially. He knows he’s the man.

A few moments later, when we’d recovered a bit from the surprise, my son and I went back over to the governor and thanked him for helping us to meet the president. Then we turned around and there was our congressman, Sanford Bishop. I introduced myself, and took a moment to explain that if you went a couple of blocks past where we stood, it looked as if no crews had even been there, and there were no police, and that in the areas with the nicer houses, there were police everywhere and lots of workers. He tried to argue that there were power company trucks right across the street from us — and there were, although they were just parked there, with no crews in sight. But I asked him to go further, and see what the poorest areas were dealing with. I asked him, “Please, do what you can to make sure the poor neighborhoods get help, because they’re going to need it.” He said he would.

I have no idea whether he will, or whether he was really the person to talk to. In retrospect, maybe I should have asked the governor. All I know is that I was very upset and disheartened by what I saw, and I had to tell someone. I felt so helpless. I wish there was some way to translate all the good intentions that occur around a natural disaster to actual improvements in the lives of people who are stuck in poverty.

I know from working with students at the poetry workshops that the poor in my community face schools that give up on their kids. We have a 33% functional illiteracy rate here — 1 in 3 adults can’t read and write well enough to fill out a job application, according to a local literacy group. There are few jobs — an auto parts plant just closed recently, and it was one of the highest paying and largest employers in the area, and other companies have closed or moved away in the four years we’ve lived here. There are few options if you have only basic education, a low paying job, relatives in the area that depend on you, and no means to just pack up and move somewhere better.

Four years of living in a high poverty area has shown us that it’s easy to say that people can lift themselves out of poverty with a little help, but that it’s incredibly challenging for real people to actually do that, while also worrying about their kids, trying to find and keep a job, and dealing with all the everyday worries of life. Now, some in my community are doing all of that AND facing the prospect of having to recover from damaged homes. It’s daunting. When politicians talk about two Americas, they’re describing my town. I don’t think it’s as simple as rich — or even just economically secure — and poor, though.

Yesterday we heard a woman on the radio say she was afraid to leave her house because she thought there’d be looters. So far, there haven’t been any actual reports of looting, not on the local radio or tv stations, anyway. The reporter announced that the curfew and the extra police would help prevent trouble. I guess if you live where there’s nothing to loot, you don’t get extra help, which is why we saw so few police in the poor side of town.

What neither the reporter nor the woman who was worried about looters said is that the neighborhoods the police are trying to keep people out of are also predominantly white, besides being middle to upper middle class. The poor area behind the hospital, where the president stopped, is predominantly black. When they conversed on the radio about “people walking around who don’t need to be in this neighborhood,” it’s pretty likely that she was basing that on the fact that for some reason, they didn’t “look” like they lived there, and therefore she assumed they were up to no good.

I digress. Before he got back in the motorcade, I heard the president say “I’m glad someone’s happy.” He was talking to a woman who’d come up on foot, was dressed very humbly, and said she was glad to be alive. I felt ashamed that last night, I was so glad for my electricity, which had been restored. This woman was happy, probably without electricity. Maybe even with a damaged house. She was happy to be standing there, talking to one of the most powerful men on earth for a few moments. I’m glad he could bring her some comfort, and I really appreciate that he came here and gave of his time and his compassion today.

P.S. We made it out to some friends’ houses later today and the devastation — whole streets full of trees down, power lines tangled, etc. — was just mind boggling. People who HAVE resources and jobs and insurance and everything else are going to have a terrible time recovering. It’s amazing. The Red Cross reports over 500 houses damaged so far.

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