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Most valuable Katrina lesson? Depend on yourself

As terrible as the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katina is for our state and our neighboring states, there are some valuable life lessons to be learned by the survivors. Much has been written and broadcast about the lack of emergency preparedness that came to light in the wake of the two hurricanes that pounded the Gulf Coast over the last month or so. In fact, so much has been written and said that there is little I can add to the discussion.

Rather, I want to look at the plight of individual survivors and how they prepared themselves for emergencies, or didn’t. Independence and self-sufficiency are traits that are ingrained in the American persona.

By operation of nature, we are separated from most of the world by two oceans and, as such, have been isolated from most of the world’s population. This fact of geography has helped us avoid many of the problems endemic to Europe, Africa and Asia. It has also promoted our sense of independence. Some call it arrogance, but regardless of whether we are characterized as independent or arrogant, there is something distinctly American about doing things our way with minimum help, or interference, from others.

Starting in the 1960s, the plague of a welfare state infected our country. Many people were lulled into thinking that the government was going to take care of everything and it was no longer necessary that we be self-sufficient. As comfortable as this reliance on government might be, it is a false security that reduces us to manipulated pieces on the political chessboard. Politicians love dependency since they can buy popularity by doling out tax dollars and thereby leverage dependency to keep themselves in office.

Throughout my childhood the value of education was pounded into my rebellious head. With the assistance of the taxpayers, I got a sound public education and learned marketable skills that have served me well through the years. Absent the parental pressure exerted on me to get an education and amount to something, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Now come the hurricanes with dislocation and devastation of epic proportions. People from the Gulf Coast areas are scattered to the wind. Estimates are that clean up and restoration of basic services and temporary housing could take as long as two years.

Much has been made of the property destruction resulting from the storms and it was, indeed, horrific. Insurance will compensate for some of the property losses for the folks whose stuff was insured. Others have lost everything with little hope of any significant recovery at all.

What does one do when catastrophe occurs? If one is possessed of a reasonable education and marketable skills, as difficult as it is, one picks up what’s left and makes a new start. It may be necessary to relocate to another state, either temporarily or permanently. This is where the value of marketable skills becomes so important.

Those possessing good job skills get a new job and get back to work providing for their family and making a contribution in their new community. Not fun, but far better than the alternative.

Those who do not possess job skills were either not working, or working at a menial job when the storm struck and they relocate somewhere lacking the basic tools for survival in today’s marketplace. Rather than contributors, they are dependents wherever they go.

Whose fault is it that so many of our citizens are illiterate? Parents? Racism? Ignorance? Does it matter? The longer folks lounge in self-pity and fail to develop the basic skills to earn a living the worse it is for them and society.

More and more everyday we are becoming a society that has no place for the illiterate. Yet, everyday youngsters make the extremely poor decision to drop out of school without sufficient job skills to make their way in the world. Plus, middle-age and older illiterate citizens sit idly by, day after day, and wait for society to take care of them. And, every day, society loses a little more patience with those who refuse to provide for themselves.

I wish that I could shake some sense into them. Their lousy decision today will be a ball and chain on their foot for the rest of their lives.

On a related issue, Katrina has taught us the importance of knowing the terms of our insurance coverage. Insurance is pretty boring stuff until you need it. However, when you need it, you really need it. What’s covered? Wind? Water? Storm surge? How will replacement value be figured? These questions were fairly mundane until Katrina made them extremely important.

And, finally, Katrina taught us the wisdom of having a financial stash for a rainy day. Spending less than our income is a conscience decision that we either make or we don’t. It’s really not rocket science. Any dork can spend every cent that passes through their hands. I don’t wish to appear insensitive, but all the people who said they couldn’t afford the gasoline to flee New Orleans would have been in better shape (financially and physically) if they had skipped one McDonald’s combo meal a month for the last year and hid the money under the mattress.

Thought for the Moment

Prosperity is no just scale; adversity is the only balance to weigh friends. — Plutarch

Joe D. Jones, CPA (retired), is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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