When Hurricane Katrina ravished the Gulf coast last week, I was in Montana. I could only watch with helpless horror as the coast braced itself for yet another strike. I kept hoping it was a nightmare that would dissipate upon awakening. Since we do not have a TV here, each morning I impatiently wait for my computer to boot up and deliver the most current updates via the internet. I never thought I could pray for a Category 3 hurricane, but when faced with Katrina’s 175 mph winds, I prayed for an Ivan event. A year ago I would have denied the possibility of hoping for another Ivan. Obviously, I had forgotten about perspective. It’s all about perspective. Ivan was truly Ivan, the Terrible. But, a Category 5 storm with 175 mile per hour winds churning on my doorstep gave me a different perspective.
As the hours progressed, disbelief became terror as the water continued to rise. Thousands are homeless; hurricane shelters are compromised; the situation is more dire than I dared imagine. My laptop screen failed to convey the magnitude of Katrina’s wrath. Just last September I was in Montana watching footage of Hurricane Ivan’s destruction on TV. When I actually flew into the area and saw the widespread damage, I was completely unprepared. Unless a person happens to be in the image of debris shown on TV, the picture fails to convey enormity of the piles. And the smell! The smell absolutely overwhelms the senses — but cannot be shared with a TV audience.
When I finally did have the opportunity to watch the news coverage on TV, I felt the same residue of despair in my heart as I did when 9/11 happened. It’s a deep knowing that life will never be the same again, for any of us. I am aware that for many, time becomes relevant only in BK and AK. Katrina will divide their lives into Before Katrina and After Katrina. Ivan’s reign as the event that defined my time was short-lived. Less than a year actually, who would have thought?
It’s a week since Katrina irrevocably altered time. The incomprehensible situation continues to compound. From the lack of food and water; levees breaking; anarchy terrorizing the victims even further; deteriorating sanitation conditions; putrid stagnating water; deceased victims absent of burials; to the slow response time of federal aid, the situation becomes ever graver. Survivors of the actual hurricane must now survive the aftermath. Medication is running out for many of the refugees; there are reports of people still trapped in their attics; the unbearable heat facilitating the potential for diseases and deteriorating health conditions; and the heart-rending decisions to separate families to expedite evacuation.
The scenes are reminiscent of a disaster movie. It’s likely if we saw all of this occurring in a movie, we would say, “It was over the top, too much, it could never be that bad.” And like the survivors in the movies, small groups of people banded together to increase their odds for survival in a world gone mad. Some groups decided to strike out on their own to see if they could fare better being active instead of waiting on an organized effort by the government.Hours upon hours I spend at my computer mesmerized by the human stories that are emerging from the rubble.
While the logistics of organizing a relief effort seem insurmountable, Hurricane Katrina was not a surprise. The government knew a storm was heading to the Gulf coast. Not just any storm, but a Category 5 monster bent on stalking its prey. True, no one knew exactly where she was going to strike, but there was a general location identified by hurricane watches and warning. And it was painfully obvious the communities affected would need help. And quickly.
Forces should have been mobilized and readied well before landfall. They could have been organized to respond wherever they were needed immediately after the storm subsided. It is not a surprise that water, food, emergency personnel, and military support were required after Katrina ripped through the coast. If, by some miracle, the disaster wasn’t as extensive as anticipated, then gratefully, the readied troops could return to their previous duties. Obviously, people and supplies should have been ready to move ASAP to the affected areas.
A prominent politician recently stated, “”If we can’t respond faster than this to an event we saw coming across the Gulf for days, then why do we think we’re prepared to respond to a nuclear or biological attack?”
I guess that is what frightens me most – that the American public has been lulled into trusting that our government has its act together. Complacency exists because we assume that the government is organized and has a plan for catastrophic events. When the directors of FEMA and Homeland Security state they didn’t foresee the problems and they were unaware of the situation in New Orleans (although the news networks spoke of little else), we, as the American public, should be concerned about their abilities to lead and protect us in a time of crisis. Thankfully, many men and women are helping where they see a need, instead of waiting for orders that may never come.
I salute the troops, emergency personnel, reporters, and volunteers who are, quite literally, in the trenches helping in innumerable ways. I am especially grateful that people have a means to have their voices heard and their stories told. MSNBC interviewed a therapist that said survivors need to be able to tell their stories over and over again to help their healing process.
Hours upon hours I spend at my computer mesmerized by the human stories that are emerging from the rubble. The spirit of the human species encourages me. Yes, there are stories of anarchy and gunfire. But, there are stories of neighbors and strangers sacrificing themselves to save another. A pregnant mother swims across dangerous waters to find help for her asthmatic son – Her healthy child was born after her daring swim. A six year old boy takes his five siblings and cousins by the hand and leads them to an evacuation bus after being separated from his parents during a helicopter rescue. He is six and very successfully takes responsibility for a five month old; a three year old; and three two-year olds. As the survivors emerge from the wreckage, stories of the heart and of triumph are being heard. Heroes do what they can when they can. Without a doubt, many will be unsung heroes with their stories unheard by the masses. Even so, their open hearts and courage changed the world.