It’s hard to know what to say. For the last week, every conversation I’ve had has eventually turned to the catastrophe of New Orleans, and then, once we’ve reached our collective threshhold, where the enormity of the disaster and the suffering that’s followed becomes so great that whatever words we might speak couldn’t possibly express anything but the shallowest surface reflection, we collectively turn away, overwhelmed. Moments of silence stretch, until someone broaches some other topic of conversation, anything, and we all gratefully turn our minds away.
Despite the much-vaunted immediacy of the Age of Information, we all still live in human-sized worlds. Data and information about the millions and billions of dollars in property damage, about death tolls and tens of thousands stranded in the Superdome are so much intellectual fluff, numbers without a human face, compared to the stories that have trickled my way from people who were there, stories of people found drowned in their attics, fingers scraped to the bone as they tried to claw their way to freedom while the water kept on rising, stories of cops shot in the head and left dead in the street so that someone could drive out of town.
New Orleans has always been part of America’s seedy underbelly, a place where our all-too-human penchants for vice and dionysian excess could come out and play freely and without guilt or judgement. I can imagine some among the professionally righteous thinking to themselves that perhaps this is God or Allah’s way of punishing the sinners of the Big Easy, that one can only flout the laws of whatever Book they hold dear for so long before the hammer of judgement falls. As ever, it seems that hammer falls heaviest on those least able to recover from the blow: the poor, the old and infirm, the less fortunate. After all, haven’t they proved they deserved it with the looting and the killing that followed?
Never mind that the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have predicted for years that this must eventually happen. Never mind that the money that might have gone to upgrading the levees disappeared, earmarked for tax cuts and wars of choice. Never mind that, although a State of Emergency was declared days before the hurricane hit the coast, there was no massive mobilization of resources to provide transportation to those without vehicles, nor deliver food and water, nor maintain order in the chaos which inevitably breaks out in the face of catastrophes of this magnitude. One way or another, we’ve known this was coming eventually, but as with so many other things, it wasn’t coming today, so maybe we can put off dealing with it, just like global warming, which many scientists believe has a more than passing relationship with the uptick in natural disasters over the last couple of decades. I’m sure that even now someone is saying that more studies need to be done before the painful decisions that are coming can be made. I’m equally sure that on the day of reckoning that those people will be saying the same thing, when it’s too late and we all reap what they have sown in our names. I hope that we’ll come to our collective senses before that day.