My hero is a bus thief
Houston Chronicle | September 2, 2005
By RICK CASEY
When I heard President Bush on Thursday morning call for "zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this," it gave me shivers.
I know he wanted to send a tough message to thugs stealing guns, drugs and flat-panel televisions, holding up hospitals, shooting at helicopters.
But doesn't he realize he would be heard by the moral equivalent of school administrators?
These are people who suspend girls for bringing Midol in their purses or butter knives in their lunchboxes.
What would they do to a kid who steals a bus?
When he arrived at the Astrodome about 10 p.m. Wednesday, 20-year-old Jabbar Gibson modestly confessed that he had commandeered a school bus in New Orleans, then picked up about 70 passengers before heading out for the 13-hour trek to Houston.
Stealing a bus is a felony.
It's also an act of heroism.
There's something about the obliteration of a city and all its survival systems of social support and discipline that messes with moral norms.
When they arrived at the Astrodome, Gibson and his passengers raised another moral question. Should they be let in?
Where Oilers once slept
It was reminiscent of the Cold War debates over whether a family with a backyard bomb shelter should, in a nuclear attack, let neighbors in knowing that the food and water supply wouldn't support them all.
Officials believe the practical limit for shelter in the Astrodome is 25,000, and they had made a commitment to house refugees from the Superdome who could reach that number.
At first, unidentified officials told the bus refugees no. But about half an hour later, Red Cross officials who are running the shelter operation let them in to sleep on the former playing field, where the Oilers once slept.
Earlier, however, a desperate woman driving a van filled with five children and a crated dog was turned away. A dramatic photo on the Chronicle's front page yesterday led to phone calls to the newspaper, volunteering shelter.
Officials were reasonably concerned about opening Astrodome gates to all comers before learning how many would be coming from the Superdome. Thursday officials would take a more nuanced approach and let some refugees in who didn't show up in buses.
Trouble headed our way?
Meanwhile, fed by alarming images of anarchy from New Orleans and reports of fights breaking out as buses loaded at the Superdome, some Houstonians worried about what kind of trouble was headed our way.
Some nurses at the Texas Medical Center, for example, wondered aloud Wednesday if the refugees would be allowed out of the Astrodome to board the light rail and head their way. They were not alone in their worries.
The answer is yes, the refugees will be allowed to come and go.
But fears that the refugees will become an uncivil mob at the Astrodome are overblown. The concerns were, inevitably, tinged with race and class perceptions. The pictures we see from the Superdome are of people who are mostly poor and black.
Yet imagine that the entire population of The Woodlands, mostly white and prosperous, were confined for five days to an Astrodome that had no air conditioning, few working toilets, no showers, dwindling supplies of food and water, inadequate medical assistance and a likelihood that things would only get worse.
Anyone who thinks they would politely, without anger, queue up for an inadequate number of delayed buses has never driven I-45 during rush hour.
Houston knows the difference between those who steal buses and those who steal televisions, shoot at rescue workers, or who stick up hospital pharmacists for drugs.
We greet these refugees not with zero tolerance, but with a generous welcome. And with an Astrodome that, while not ideal, will be air-conditioned, well-supplied and well-supported.
We can expect that the vast majority will respond the way we ourselves can only hope we would if we were in their soggy shoes.