Don't evict them from 'The Big Easy'

Posted: Sep 12, 2005 12:00 AM

MSNBC's Dan Abrams, reporting on Wednesday from New Orleans, interviewed law enforcement officials who had arrested looters stealing jewelry. The cops brought the looters to a police station, where whoever was in charge cut them loose.

 It made no sense. The cops were risking their lives to arrest the looters. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had announced a pending mandatory evacuation. Yet the authorities didn't evacuate the looters -- they released them back into the city. Abrams later saw the same looters where they had been apprehended, even though they had been told not to return.

 How can a city prepare to arrest law-abiding citizens who don't want to leave their homes, while letting criminals roam freely on the streets?

 It made sense to require people to leave when a hurricane threatened the city and the lives of those in it. But the evacuation failed. It doesn't make sense now to use the blunt club of government to pluck law-abiding people from their homes against their will, when these people survived and the city is improving, if slowly.

 Don't get me wrong. If I had a relative in New Orleans who wanted to stay, I would beg him or her to leave. The water is toxic. The possibility of fire looms. Crime has taken innocent lives. I can't imagine more miserable living conditions, and I'd rather see a loved one survive without possessions than perish with them.

 I also think officials should remove children from unsafe homes, as well as adults who endanger others. The floodwaters are poisonous, but many neighborhoods are not underwater. And while some warn about airborne infection, network reporters walk through the French Quarter. They complain of the stench, but not disease.

 And because it stinks, you have to figure that residents who choose to stay either are lucky enough to live in a pocket of land that is untouched by the toxic waters, or they believe they will be better off in their damaged homes. Such determination suggests the kind of can-do spirit that it will take to rebuild the Big Easy. Why kick these tough-as-nails citizens out?

 There are businesses that are cleaning up. Employees at the Royal Sonesta Hotel have sanitized everything with bleach. The general manager told the Times Picayune that he can open for business five days after the electric power is restored. Why make such hard workers leave?

 Residents who weathered days of stormy weather and flooding are self-sufficient folk. Those who want to stay are not asking for the government to save them. The levees failed, the shelters were scary, law enforcement evaporated. They have little reason to rely on the government for help -- although some law enforcement would be welcome.

 If they want to stay and are able to care for themselves, it is their right to do so. It is not the role of the government to force them from their homes. Authorities instead should respect their right to self-determination.

 Better yet, let the authorities pay these residents to work on cleaning up the city. Now is not too soon to start. Authorities argue that it could take up to three months to pump out the city. That timetable simply is unacceptable. The feds should concentrate on evacuating water from the city -- not the residents.

 If the powers that be can allow reporters to stay in the city, then surely they can allow taxpayers to stay in their homes.