Up Front: October 2005

No way out

Getting there, they say, is half the fun. Getting back can be no fun. Getting away, when you must but can’t, is hell. The latter two are lessons I learned during three consecutive weeks in August.

My wife and I flew to Maine on vacation. Fog delayed our flight out of Charlotte an hour and half, so we missed our connection in Washington and got to Portland nearly five hours late. That wasn’t so bad.

Coming back, the 5:07 p.m. flight was supposed to get us home before 9. We arrived in Charlotte at 3:55 a.m. Thunderstorms had bashed New York, forcing a long delay out of Portland. Then there was a 51/2-hour layover at Dulles while the airline flew in another plane and a new crew. FAA regulations, we were told. What they can’t blame on God, folks want to lay on the government.

The following weekend I had to go to Richmond, so I took the train. It would be about as quick as driving and, with the price of gas, just as cheap. Roadbed repairs put us about an hour behind getting there. The trip back was something else. Boarding time was 1:10 p.m., with arrival scheduled for 8:10 p.m. It got there at 3 o’clock the next morning.

The train out of Washington had been nearly two hours late pulling into Richmond. Outside the Northeast, Amtrak doesn’t own the tracks it uses, leasing them from freight lines, which have right of way. Once we finally boarded, we spent most of the delay sitting on a siding outside Weldon.

Write your congressman, an Amtrak spokeswoman told me when I called to complain: This is what happens when the government gives moving freight priority over moving people. I thought about all the pissed-off folks on that train. This is what happens, some had said, when the government tries to run a railroad. For most of them, taking the train hadn’t been an option but a necessity.

Then came the next week and with it, on Monday, Katrina. My wife’s cousin and her husband live — or maybe I should say, lived — in New Orleans. It was Friday before we heard from them. “We weathered the storm with no wind or water damage,” the e-mail said. “On Wednesday, when the plumbing failed and the stores across the street were looted, we decided to evacuate.”

Nine people, two cats and a dog piled into a cargo van. The people had guns, which they showed when challenged by street thugs, who ran away. (“Don’t mean to sound like Jesse James, but it was like Blade Runner.”) They made it out, driving three hours west, where she and her husband rented a car. They reached Winston-Salem 18 hours later.

They had the means to escape, to get away, but others didn’t and couldn’t. With no choice but to stay and wait for help, many suffered and some died in ways that are inexcusable in this country. The government gets blamed for many things — too many — and it cannot be held responsible for the killer storm. But it must be accountable for much of what happened in the aftermath. And that guilt, like the toxic fuel floating on the water that drowned New Orleans, rises to the top.

“But what do you expect?” a friend asked me. “We elect people who say they believe government is bad. Why shouldn’t they prove it by governing badly?”