July 23rd, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

First, the Good News

After being without power for all but a couple of the last 93 hours, I finally got my power back about 4pm on Sunday. And I'm going to have some unkind things to say about that. But before I do, I want to say some good things.

I am not particularly a fan of the way that His Honor, Mayor "Saint Francis" Slay, runs that city, he lets Civic Progress keep him on way too short a leash. And the routinely malevolent antics of the St. Louis City Police Department are the primary reason why I refer to the area between Skinker and the river as a corrupt, pestilential hell-hole. But this week, he and they just blew me away with how much good they achieved. Let me put this in some context: there are still people in this town with t-shirts in their closets that say, "I'm not afraid of hell. I was in St. Louis in the summer of 1980." As was I. In fact, I was working as an electrician, up on asphalt roofs, to put myself through college, but that's not the relevant point. The relevant part is that the heat wave of 1980 was only slightly hotter than last week. And, this being back before AmerEn(ron) took over our electrical grid, we had reliable electrical power back then. And even with people using their fans, the St. Louis metro area lost dozens of people, 12 of them at once on the worst day. It's a sad and stupid fact that because the American people are so afraid of crime, elderly people refused to leave their un-air-conditioned houses (for fear someone would steal their stuff) with all the windows and doors shut (for fear someone might break in) ... and died like flies.

Immediately after Wednesday's storm, I found out from the radio that the electricity had been knocked out to 10 of the city's 14 emergency cooling shelters, shelters that were built immediately after and have been since operating because of the heat wave of 1980. So I was predicting, with grim confidence, that by the end of the day on Thursday we'd have 20 people dead of heat stroke. By the end of Thursday, we had 1. We've only had 2 so far, and neither of those in the City of St. Louis. And the reason why not is amazing: Saint Francis diverted almost the entire manpower of the City PD to patrolling the blacked-out areas with their loudspeakers on, then to going door to door after that, and only just barely not using force to get the elderly and sick out of those brick pizza ovens they call houses in the City and into the remaining emergency cooling shelters, plus a few more thrown together at the last minute by the Archdiocese and by the Red Cross. That determination, that correct call, almost certainly saved at least 20 lives, maybe as many as 40 or 50.

And it was the correct call. A lesser man, including most of you I suspect, would have dedicated that police manpower to preventing looting. No, he only assigned a few officers in cars (plus a few National Guard MPs in HMMVs) to patrolling the blacked-out areas at night; every other effort was dedicated to evacuating the elderly and sick. So, since the city has an unconscionably high crime rate at the best of times, and the police were all busy with emergency evacuations, those of you who know nothing about poor and working class people would doubtless assume that the city descended into an orgy of looting, rapine, and murder. And if that would have been or was your expectation, you should be ashamed of yourself. In point of fact, the crime rate has gone down sharply during the emergency. When the chips are down, real human beings, even sociopathic ones, know that job one is to take care of your neighbors and relatives and friends. That takes priority over your job, even if your job is heisting cars or boosting TVs out of empty houses. Sure, the neighborhoods were half empty and the cops were busy elsewhere. If human beings were as bad as some of you think they are, it would have been a perfect opportunity for them to get away with anything they wanted to. And they didn't.

Part of me would like to go around to everybody who worries out loud about looters during disasters and slap each and every one of them upside the head, for scaring people unnecessarily, sometimes scaring them to death. I know that they mean well, but they couldn't possibly be more wrong, or more dangerously wrong.

No, when the chips are really down poor and working class people only survive by caring for and looking out for each other, and we know it. It's only upper-middle-class and wealthy bastards who rob people during a disaster. Which brings me, paradoxically, to another good thing I wanted to say: thank God, once again, for Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon. Missouri has a law making it deeply illegal to try to profiteer off of a disaster, and it's already made the local news that he knows about the gas station that jacked prices to $5 per gallon Wednesday night, and the store that jacked prices to $4 per small bag on ice, and indictments will follow. Presumably by now someone will have called in to him the story I heard first-hand of someone who was quoted a price of $400 a night for an ordinary single-occupancy room in one of the area's budget motels. At the very least, those people will not be allowed to keep their ill-gotten gains, and knowing Jay Nixon's dedication to tracking down corporate scofflaws, I'll be actually surprised if we don't get at least probation, maybe even jail time, for some of them.

Finally, one big shout-out to locally owned grocery chain Shop-n-Save. Even in the middle of the worst of the black-out zone, they kept the local store open on big, expensive generators; indeed, they were the first to do so. They were on emergency lighting only, and the meat and dairy and frozen food departments were down, but they stayed open because they knew that here in the suburb of St. John, a lot of people who can't or don't drive depend on them. Not only that, but they took out two ads in the Sunday Post-Dispatch giving away two different coupons for $10 off of a $50 purchase, specifically to help people with lost produce restock their refrigerators. One's good from now through Wednesday, and the other's Thursday only. That's an extremely brave and generous thing for them to do. Unlike most forms of retail, the profit margins on groceries are miniscule, usually under 2%. So by offering up to a 10% discount, they're going to lose money on those purchases. Sure, they're doing it to ensure customer loyalty -- but they've been in the business long enough to know that customer loyalty means nothing compared to price and location. And they've got both of those things on their side. They don't have to give away $20 per customer to this neighborhood to ensure most of our loyalty. No, they know that we're their literal bread and butter, and that if the neighborhood sinks they sink. They're taking care of their neighborhoods, and the Gods bless 'em for it.

Now I need to go get in line behind the rest of the apartment complex to use the washing machines. I've needed to do laundry since Wednesday, and am almost completely out of clothes. Please keep the roughly 1/3 of the people in the area who are without power here in Baghdad on the Mississippi in your prayers, because starting Monday the normal summer weather is coming back and AmerEn(ron) is saying that some of them won't get their power back until Friday or Saturday.