From TPM Reader SW:
Hi, just wanted to chime in on the objection that reader DW had to the word refugee in reference to Katrina victims. I don’t know if DW was affected by Katrina, and if so please excuse the following rant.
I was living in Thibodaux, Louisiana, an hour southwest of New Orleans, as Katrina was approaching. We did have the means to evacuate and left Sunday morning when Katrina became a category 5 storm, and stayed with some distant family in Texas. Thibodaux was surprisingly undamaged, and so we were able to return a week later.
But as someone who did evacuate with Katrina, and as someone who lived in New Orleans proper for five years shortly before, “refugees” is precisely the right word. In fact, I think it is the only possible word to describe the situation. I find it in no way insulting to the people who, a year later, still do not know if they will ever be able to return to their homes and rebuild their neighbourhoods.
I can understand that other people around the country find the word uncomfortable. This is America, and “refugee” problems are just not something that happens here. Except that it does happen. It is happening. Unless DW is from the Gulf Coast that was affected by either Katrina or Rita (in which case I apologize to him), I find it very distasteful for him to try and pass off his discomfort at the reality of the continuing situation in the New Orleans area, southern Mississippi, and southwest Louisiana as some sort of paternalistic effort to defend the dignity of those effected.
Refugee does have a negative connotation. As DW said, not a perjorative one, but a negative one. It is a situation that we, as American, always have a desire to help with — even if it is just a vague “those poor people” sort of desire. But there are tens of thousands — or more — displaced and dispossessed people within our own country, and a major and unique American city that is still literally struggling to survive. The promised federal aid appears to be coming haltingly, if at all, and many of the plans for rebuilding are (I believe) still tied up in Corps of Engineer red tape.
I hope the word “refugee” makes everyone else in America uncomfortable. I think it is the only possible word that might wake people up — the citizens, the media, and hopefully through them maybe a couple of elected officials — and make them realize that Katrina and Rita are still an ongoing crisis a year after the wind and rain stopped.