Stop Killing LaBelle – Reflections on a Hurting Town
I had trouble finding the town of LaBelle because it is, as mentioned in last week’s article, tiny. But once I did find it and got out of the car, I broke one of the rules I’d already been warned about: I forgot to put on my sunglasses. Within an hour or two my eyes were burning, presumably from the ash. Fortunately it was a wet day, and so there wasn’t too much of the stuff in the air. According to what I’ve been told, the version I saw and experienced was tame.
In addition, I began having trouble breathing within the first 20 minutes of my arrival there. Yma and I were walking and talking in her backyard, and I started noticing myself having to breathe deeper. By the end of a five-or-so-hour visit, breathing was something I had to think about.
After I left LaBelle, I drove north for another interview and stayed the night in a town outside of Pittsburgh. I changed clothes and showered, and I kept my shoes separate so that I could wash them.
I felt silly taking all these precautions, because I had just been in a place where they live with the ash at all times, and here I was prepping to scrub it off of my sneakers and jeans.
I got back to DC in the afternoon the next day. When I saw my husband, and he asked me to recount stories from the trip, I just burst out crying. I didn’t want to express in words what I was already thinking – that these incredibly kind, giving people would probably be dead soon. That I might never see them again, and that my work would not be enough to help them save themselves.
It all sounds very melodramatic. I told myself I needed to calm down. I took my very first migraine pill, and another one each night after that for a week.
The day after the article went up, I got news from some contacts who are working with the residents in LaBelle. Yma had gone to the hospital with kidney failure. Only 10% of her kidneys were working at the time, and she is currently awaiting more test results. This occurred within one week of my interview with her. Her neighbor Sonny, who was receiving chemotherapy when I interviewed him, was also rushed to the hospital that same week with kidney failure. While examining him, the doctors found spots on his lungs. They have taken him off of chemotherapy for the time being. He, like Yma, awaits further tests.
This breaks my heart, and I can’t even begin to think how miserable it is for these folks and their families, and for the few brave attorneys and activists who have grown to love them while standing beside them as they seek relief.
Not much can be done for Yma, Rudy, Sonny, and many of their neighbors, besides perhaps a very aggressive lawsuit and some new regulations, which I’ll be writing more about in the coming weeks. But something has to be done for their children, and their children’s children, who are currently growing up in this hellhole with no way out, and for the other communities like LaBelle whose stories have not been told.
Biased journalism, I suppose. But so be it.