During every natural disaster, there are people who refuse to evacuate. We gape at the TV and ask ourselves: “Why didn’t they leave? Are they nuts? Who are these people?” I call them crackpots. Because I can. I know I should say they made bad decisions. Comedian Louis C. K. was on Saturday Night Live this weekend and said he wished he could fall in love with an old woman because at least he would know what she was thinking. Quoth Louis, “After 72, all the filters come off.”

So what kind of people ignore evacuation warnings, stand with arms crossed and a flag in front of their houses as their neighbors flee, take photos of tornadoes closing in, refuse to stop mountain climbing when an avalanche is predicted and try to sail around the world in a rowboat? Heroes or crackpots?

People who tempt fate are not all alike, of course. Depending on the tragedy, many simply have no place to go and no way to get there if they do. They’re stuck and they’re scared and they’re abandoned. In the case of a family on Staten Island, they were robbed when they evacuated during Irene; they stayed this time and two of them died in Sandy.

Others operate with irrational fears or irrational bravado, both of which can prove fatal.

So who do we help and in what order of priority? And how much should we help, and for for how long? In other words, “who deserves help the most?”

As I write this late on Sunday, November 4, the New York Marathon was cancelled, thank heavens. The thinking was that it would have been good for Manhattan’s psyche, but someone finally realized it would be an embarrassment in light of conditions on Staten Island. Duh.

The way I see it, if we can send a Blackhawk helicopter, which costs about $10,000 an hour to operate, to circle for hours looking for skiers and hikers who ignore warnings, why can’t we use a fleet of Blackhawk helicopters to pick up those people in Staten Island who have nowhere to go and nothing to take with them?

The larger question, and one that divides the country in this election is this: are we in fact responsible for our fellow countrymen? If so, what about the crackpots, many of whom have outed themselves on the East Coast? It’s a huge moral question that affects government policy. Sure, we have no problem – well less of a problem – with aid for the working poor, the old (if they were lucky enough to hold a job when they were young), the sick (if they decide to buy insurance), etc.

What about people who are so flawed that they refuse to help themselves? People who can’t kick their addictions, who can’t hold a job, who can’t stop killing themselves with food, who were raised by crackpot parents or criminals, who have a mental illness that makes them fear any change and any help? The people who talk to themselves on the L are the people who floated down the street in New Orleans. Are they not as entitled to help as the people who get caught in avalanches and pursue extreme sports?

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Mary Kay O'Grady

Mary Kay O'Grady is a former high school English teacher and later owned her own public relations business, The O'Grady Group. She has lived in Oak Park for almost fifteen years. She is currently the chairperson...

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