After The Storm
So much of modern life has elements of the surreal that we as a society have become largely anesthetized to events that would have been shocking not even a generation ago.
Still, certain events are so overwhelming and cataclysmic that they retain the power not only to shock but to knock us over on our backs and cause us to reevaluate the way we live.
Sept. 11 was obviously one of those events–its hellishness all the more terrible because it was an unprovoked attack on innocent people who were going about their workaday lives. The scars of 9/11 are still evident as is the memory of being kicked in our collective stomach.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina falls into the category of something so unimaginable that almost two weeks later we are still reeling from the shock. Indeed, since the dead bodies are only now starting to be collected, and no one knows how many there are, we are being warned to expect the worst.
I know there were warnings by the score on the perilousness of New Orleans’ location and infrastructure. But, honestly, did anyone ever imagine they would see the destruction of a major American city caused by a hurricane? In some ways, a nuclear attack–unthinkable as that is–seemed more likely as the cause of such incredible devastation.
Yet, here is New Orleans, a city of almost 500,000 people, which for all practical purposes will be a ghost town for the foreseeable future.
Here is a quote from commentary by Nicholas Lemann, a New Orleanian, in the Sept. 12 issue of The New Yorker: “…after the levees broke, we watched every single system associated with the life of a city fail: the electric grid, the water system, the sewer system, the transportation system, the telephone system, the police force, the fire department, the hospitals, even the system for disposing of corpses.”
This utter waste is all the more heartbreaking because immediately after the storm passed by the city there was a palpable sense of relief that it had escaped the worst. It was only a day later when the levees broke that the peril and enormity of the situation became evident.
It will be hard to forget the reports of that Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday when the city and those residents who didn’t evacuate seemed to be lost souls beyond anyone’s power to save them. Certainly, it seemed as if the federal government was doing nothing while something out of Hieronymus Bosch was being recreated right before our eyes.
This sense of abandonment of people in the face of mounting horror is, I believe, what caused such agony and dismay and recrimination not only in this country but throughout the world. Somehow, something that seemed unthinkable about this country had become reality.
I cannot imagine being forced to leave my home and everything I own and not know when or if I would be allowed to return. Yet this is precisely what these half a million New Orleans residents, not to mention those of other communities like Biloxi and Gulfport, are facing.
Despite Barbara Bush’s comment in the Houston Astrodome that “so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them,” I think that most of us (those without the silver spoons) feel there are better ways of starting your life over than being totally wiped out.
Or maybe she has grown too comfortable and familiar with the surreal.
This sense of abandonment of people in the face of mounting horror is, I believe, what caused such agony and dismay and recrimination not only in this country but throughout the world. Somehow, something that seemed unthinkable about this country had become reality.”