Like all good folk in Louisiana, the people of Estherwood were horrified by what they saw on television as hundreds of thousands of New Orleans residents were rendered homeless by Hurricane Katrina.
They sympathised with families who were left with nothing and shook their heads at news that Hurricane Rita now threatens further disaster on the Gulf coast of America.
But when the true test came and the Government came knocking for Estherwood’s help, the milk of human kindness came up sour. At a meeting yesterday, local officials rejected proposals that idle land beside their airstrip be turned into a government-funded sanctuary for 600 evacuee families.
Cecilia Broussard, chairwoman of the Acadian Parish Police Jury, the board that oversees local affairs, said: “We are not interested in any of that kind of activity in our parish.”
The move has prompted allegations of racism against Estherwood, a farming community with only one police officer. Of its 600 residents, 94 per cent are white. The evacuees are 90 per cent black.
John Humble, a jury member, said that people were against the idea because the proposed venue might be prone to flooding and the local infrastructure could not support the human influx. The parish should reject the idea, he said, “so the people of my district can sleep at night”. He added: “What would we do with 1,500 people out there in trailer houses? We don’t have the teachers, we don’t have the classrooms, we don’t have law enforcement, the sheriff doesn’t have the resources.”
But Alton Stevenson, a colleague, complained: “They can say what they want from the lip, but from the heart we all know it’s a racial thing. It’s all about putting a bunch of black people out there.
“If these evacuees were white, people in Estherwood would be out there praising the idea saying it would bring more money for the community and that their stores would be rich because the food stamps would be spent here and there would be more government money for the schools.”
Ron Lawson, president of the local airport commission, also believes that the concerns about infrastructure do not add up. The Federal Emergency Management Agency would have paid to install water pipes, sewage lines and electricity on the site, so allowing the airport to develop its business and improve the local economy, he said. There would have also been federal money. “It’s pretty sickening. Hopefully one day we will not be in a situation where we are looking for help from someone else,” he said.
Some are doing their bit, however. At the 222-pupil Estherwood Elementary School the principal, Johnette Leleux, has absorbed seven evacuee children—some of whom are black—from New Orleans into her classes. She was involved in a penny-drive that raised $700 (£390) for disaster relief. Neighbouring parishes are also gearing up to help.
Neighbouring parishes are also gearing up to help. However, a reporter from a local newspaper, the Crowley Post-Signal, witnessed a busload of Katrina’s victims being turned away from a burger bar in Iowa, a town near by, by a manager who claimed that local authorities had barred evacuees from stopping in the town.
Ernie Broussard, a resident and former mayor of Estherwood, is among those worried about hosting the displaced. “I don’t think it has anything to do with colour of skin,” he said, adding that the influx would include families from all walks of life, including “people who don’t want to wash”.