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Keli Goff

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What My Hurricane Irene Evacuation Taught Me About Poverty

Posted: 08/29/11 09:52 PM ET

Nothing will force you to come to grips with what really matters to you and what doesn't like being told you have to leave your home quickly and can only take so much -- only what you truly can't live without -- and that you must accept that whatever you leave behind you may never see again. When I realized that my home fell within the dreaded New York City "Zone A," which meant I was under mandatory evacuation orders thanks to our friend Hurricane Irene, suddenly those prized Gucci pumps I was so proud of getting for 70 percent off didn't seem nearly as important as my laptops, irreplaceable documents and mementos, and my favorite pair of jeans. (The ones I've had so long and worn so much that they are on their second round of patchwork. They would be worthless to anyone else but are priceless to me.)

Despite worrying that I might return home to find a pond of floating furniture and broken glass where my bed used to be, I spent much of the weekend counting my blessings, because I knew that regardless of what happened, ultimately I would be okay. The reason? Because I am not one of the 43.6 million Americans living in poverty.

Most of us know that there are countless downsides to being poor, but as far as the day-to-day reality of what that actually means for people living in poverty, many of us are vague on the details and prefer to remain that way. For instance, when we see headlines that say that those living in poverty have shorter life expectancies than the rest of us, it's easier to sleep at night if we can assume that means they simply don't make the right choices, health or otherwise. That's a much more comforting alternative than going to bed each night and knowing that someone's life or death may be in our collective hands.

Then along comes a tragedy like Hurricane Katrina six years ago, and to a lesser extent Irene, to remind us that today, in the greatest country in the world, your class status can in fact be a matter of life or death. (Click here to see where the leaders criticized for failures during Katrina are today.) It's no coincidence that those devastated the most by Katrina, were those who had the least. Those with the fewest resources were the ones with the fewest options when it came time to evacuate. And yet I have lost count of how many people I know personally who said something like, "I have a tough time feeling sorry for people who were told to evacuate and chose not to."

But life, especially life in poverty, is not that simple.

When I first heard murmurs that I might have to evacuate my home, I began thinking about my options. I thought about whether I should take this as an opportunity to hop a plane or train and visit friends or family out of state, or spend close to the same amount (likely an arm and a leg) to stay close to home in a hotel for a bit. I calculated how much these options would cost me and for how long. (So as not to leave you in suspense, friends of mine in the tri-state area graciously stepped up to the plate, sparing my savings an unexpected hit.) But as I was doing these calculations I realized how easy it is for someone like me who is not rich by any means, but who has options, to weather an unexpected storm literally and figuratively. Easy for me in a way that it's not easy for someone who not only can't afford a hotel or plane ticket, but can't afford a taxi cab to get an elderly relative or multiple small children to an evacuation center or for someone who fears losing the job that's barely keeping his family afloat if he dares to defy the boss by heading home early to pack up his family and their belongings in time to evacuate.

I realize that we're incredibly lucky that Hurricane Irene did not cause the devastation of Katrina. For that I am grateful. But something I'm not grateful for? In the six years since Katrina the number of Americans living in poverty has increased by almost six million. That means that if any major American city did have "another Katrina," despite the absence of President Bush and "Brownie" there would still be unbelievable devastation, particularly for those residents in poverty. If six years from now, there are six million more of them, that will be a tragedy far greater than any natural disaster, because it will be a tragedy that is man made and none of us should be able to sleep soundly knowing that.

Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate and a Contributing Editor to TheLoop21.com where this post originally appeared.

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