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"Watching Death" From Afar

A numbing relativity washed over Richmond last week as the city celebrated the first anniversary of a comparably pipsqueak flood caused by Tropical Breeze Gaston. A year after Richmond's own natural disaster, the newscasters tried to make the connection. We can relate, they reminded us. Only we can't even begin.

There are indeed lessons. The businesses in the Bottom received all of nothing from the city or the federal government, save $300,000 from an obscure fund issued by an economic-development director who was recently fired by the mayor. Those who rebuilt in the Bottom did so of their own accord.

The federal government wasn't exactly moving at breakneck speed in the Bayou last week. During a conference call with religious and civic leaders in Virginia Sept. 2, Gov. Mark Warner hinted that the federal bureaucracy was incapable of responding quickly enough. "We're not going to wait for FEMA," he told the pastors and ministers on the line. "What we're finding … is that everyone seems a little overwhelmed."

In Richmond, politicians, civic and religious leaders and residents alike offered up everything they could. The schools began accepting "homeless" students, no questions asked. Universities offered counseling and free tuition. Families took in refugees; businesses took in job-seekers. The employees at Royall & Co., a direct-marketing firm in Richmond, began taking in stranded administrators of Tulane University.

Meanwhile, Alice Freeman waits. Cousins and brothers cry on the phone. Her younger brother, David, and cousin Rhonda are on the way. They had been staying across the street from the Astrodome in Houston, where chaos reigned.

Freeman, owner of a holistic healing practice, Healthy Heart Plus, says no matter how long it takes, she'll always have a place in her heart for New Orleans, where she grew up. The city is 65 percent black, with many living below the poverty line, where life is paycheck to paycheck. They simply couldn't afford to evacuate, Freeman ponders, between catnaps. Most of her family couldn't. As pictures of covered bodies appear on the screen, her anxiety grows.

"There is nothing we can do but stand by and watch," she says. — Scott Bass

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