Sun, Sep 18, 2005 - Page 9 News List

What do you call people who survive a cataclysm in the US?

BY WILLIAM SAFIRE  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

The hurricane disaster called Katrina had the suddenness of a catastrophe and inflicted the damage of a calamity, but the loss of life caused by its flooding is best described as a cataclysm, "deluge, a washing away, a watery doom."

How to describe the long-trapped residents of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities -- the dazed and the furious, the hungry and homeless -- quickly became a matter of controversy.

"Refugee has become the most popular word to describe the victims," the Baltimore Sun reported, a word appearing more often than the unfamiliar "evacuee" and the unspecific "survivor."

The Reverend Jesse Jackson promptly objected. "To see them as refugees," he said, "is to see them as other than Americans," and charged that such a noun, applied to the mainly black sufferers, was "inaccurate, unfair and racist."

He had a point; although a refugee can be defined as "a person who seeks refuge," it has carried the connotation since 1685 of "one who seeks refuge or asylum in a foreign country to escape religious or political persecution." Those swimming or walking to higher ground or sweltering in makeshift aid stations presented the appearance of refugees seen so often on television; this explained the initial use of the description, but appearance is not reality.

US President George W. Bush, who had been carefully calling them "displaced citizens," agreed with the objection of many blacks: "The people we're talking about are not refugees. They are Americans."

Jocelyn Noveck of the Associated Press (AP) reported that the Boston Globe and the Washington Post dropped the word, while the AP and the New York Times did not.

"The AP is using the term `refugee,'" said its executive editor, Kathleen Carroll, "where appropriate to the sweep and scope of the effects of this historic natural disaster on a vast number of our citizens."

In my judgment, "refugee" is neither racist nor ethnic nor in any way demeaning. But in its primary sense, it does connote "fleeing to another country to escape persecution."

Roberta Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, defined refugees as "people who cross borders to escape violence, civil wars and human rights violations -- because they do not have the protection of their own country. A natural disaster is not considered a cause of refugee status." The UN has a term for people uprooted by natural disasters or unprotected by national authorities: "internally displaced people." "IDPs remain in their own country," Cohen said.

I don't go for the bureaucratic initialese, but also resist applying "refugee" to people who live in the US. "Homeless," though currently accurate, implies permanent rootlessness. "Displaced citizens" does not cover the many victims who are not citizens, and "evacuees" is a highbrow concoction.

My choices: "Katrina survivors" overall and, specifically for the inundated of New Orleans, "flood victims."

The name Katrina, a Greek variant of Catherine, was selected by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

"The use of names for tropical cyclones contributes to public awareness and alertness," states the WMO, which agreed to alternating male names at the request of the US. Other names planned for this year are Philippe, Rita, Stan, Tammy, Vince and Wilma.

BRINGING UP THE REAR

When former US president Ronald Reagan shocked the fainthearted by saying, "I've had it up to my keister," a lawyer in Seattle wrote to him in the White House enclosing a column on the etymology of the word by my fellow word maven, James Kilpatrick.

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