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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Hurricane Appalachia

The following article originally appeared in the Roanoke Times on Thursday, September 28, 2006

The way of Appalachia
By Jerry Fuhrman

Hurricane Katrina ripped into the Gulf shore a little more than a year ago, bringing devastation, widespread hardship and at least a thousand deaths to the area. Since that day, President Bush has made a total of 13 trips to the Gulf to check on the progress of the recovery effort. From his latest visit, a particular quote stands out: "We have a duty to help the local people recover."

And help we did. According to the Wall Street Journal, the federal government has now allocated $122.5 billion for reconstruction. New Orleans in particular, for too long awash in contaminated flood water, is now awash in cash.

Meanwhile here in Southwest Virginia, particularly in the Appalachian coal counties along the Kentucky and West Virginia borders, where there are also large swaths of devastation and widespread hardship, we await with eager anticipation the president's next visit and heartfelt words of encouragement. And maybe our own $122.5 billion.

Shoot, we'd be tickled to experience his first visit. Even a telegram. A message in a bottle. Nobody's holding his breath, though. It's Appalachia after all, where devastation and widespread hardship are accepted as being, well, the way Appalachia is.

I wonder what the town of Pocahontas, over in Tazewell County, could do with a billion or two. They might be able to tear down and haul away the rubble that was once whole blocks of beautiful homes. Or Raven, where King Coal abdicated his throne a long time ago and moved to Wyoming. The folks there might be able to get decent roads and a new sewer system. Those residents of Lee County who draw their drinking water from a pipe protruding from a mountain seam might be able to get 19th century technology installed. The opportunities abound.

At the Bland Ministry Center, in another Appalachian community that struggles as well in the aftermath of the same hurricane, where one of the area's largest crowds to ever assemble routinely gathered in an abandoned car lot and shoveled sweet potatoes from a huge pile that had been dumped there for poor people to toss into sacks and boxes and take home to their hungry children, what could the ministry do with some of that $122.5 billion? Or $122 for that matter.

I've wondered on occasion what might happen if the Baptists there painted the word "SUPERDOME" across the front of the abandoned textile factory next door and positioned poor folks on its rooftop, shouting and waving to passing air traffic, holding signs that read, "HELP!" There are even some black families up the way that could be enlisted for the endeavor. We could make it a racial thing. And watch the billions pour in.

In lieu of federal largesse, the needs of the Bland Ministry Center not withstanding, we could use, more than anything else, a whole lot more employers. Jobs. And with them, a future for our children. Hope.

Which makes the news coming out of the hurricane recovery effort going on down in Mississippi and Louisiana all the more frustrating. Our government is providing fabulous tax incentives to companies that make a commitment to invest in the hurricane-stricken area and is sheltering businesses there from an array of government regulations. Millions and millions in tax breaks. Moratoria on taxes. Tax credits. Tax exempt bonds. On and on.

What might Rowe Furniture and Webb Furniture and Pulaski Furniture and Hooker Furniture and Stanley Furniture and Thomasville Furniture and Vaughan Furniture and Bassett Furniture Industries have done with similar tax breaks, had they been offered, before all these Southwest Virginia employers closed facilities forever and fired employees? Think of the countless number of businesses and innumerable jobs that would come to the area if conditions were created such that profits could be maximized and growth opportunities were assured. Why, we might be able to compete with Guatemala and New Guinea for the first time in years.

People who flock to the ministry center for free hair cuts, free food, free clothing, and free dental work could actually start paying their way. They could begin contributing to the community. And they could offer their children hope.

As that politician said, "We have a duty to help the local people recover."

As the Baptists say, "Amen to that."