The Thinker

Time to take off the rose colored glasses

Like many Americans, I am trying to grasp the scale of the disaster inflicted by Hurricane Katrina. Words seem to be inadequate. News accounts, images on TV and in the newspaper go far beyond poignancy. It is hard to fathom the agony that many of my fellow citizens are dealing with. It is hard for me to even know how to adequately respond. I gave money to the American Red Cross, like I usually do in these situations. Yet I also feel like I should be doing more. I feel like I should be rolling bandages or something. But for now I am too shocked to do much differently.

We all have had our brushes with disaster during life. The closest my wife and I came to disaster happened a day after we settled on our first house, a townhouse. The previous owners rented the place and did not care too much about maintenance. Some bozo “fixed” a toilet problem with a wing nut. It came loose and the toilet went on perpetual overflow mode. We arrived the next day to paint (it happened sometime after closing) to find the ceilings down and inches of standing water on the ground floor. All we had was a verbal promise from our insurer that we were covered. And after the closing costs we were as poor as church mice. At the time, it seemed insurmountable. However, in a month it was mostly a bad memory.

The scale of our little “disaster” would not register as a pinprick to someone trying to survive today in New Orleans, Biloxi or one of the many communities inundated by Hurricane Katrina. None of our resources applied to this problem can keep what appears to be thousands of people from dying in the fetid lake that is now New Orleans. Hundreds or thousands are likely already dead.

My cousin Beth was one of the luckier ones. She had the presence and the money to get out of the city. She owns a house in New Orleans. She has no idea whether it is still standing. If it then it is likely looted. She will be lucky if she is permitted to return to her house within six months. Her assets are now largely what she managed to cram into her car. Nevertheless, she made it out safely. She is staying with her brother in St. Louis. My family is thinking of taking up a collection for her, and we are providing offers of shelter as she considers other jobs. Perhaps she will eventually return to her job in New Orleans but it sounds like it is gone with the wind and the water. Of course, she left many friends in New Orleans. She has no idea how many are alive or dead.

I get the impression that the media is making a lot less of this disaster than it should. This may be because New Orleans is currently so inaccessible. Scary posts like this suggest that the final death toll may conservatively be in the tens of thousands. For some perspective, this would be even a larger death toll than the hurricane in 1900 that struck Galveston, Texas and killed 6,000 people. However, in 1900 Galveston was a relatively small city. America has grown since then. New Orleans itself has 1.3 million people.

I am torn between wanting to point fingers and throwing my hands up in despair. This exact scenario was not exactly unanticipated. Clearly much more should have been done to avoid this catastrophe. The money the Army Corp of Engineers requested to shore up levees and add pumps turned out to be a fraction of their request. It appears that war in Iraq and tax cuts were more important than the boring business of shoring up levees. So of course, I am angry. Yet my anger must be nothing compared to the citizens of New Orleans. It is all gone and life for those who remain is a chancy game of surviving thirst, hunger and heat stroke.

Yes, I think that we could do a whole lot more than we are doing. I do not understand why every helicopter owned by the U.S. government in the continental United States has not been mobilized to get stranded citizens out of the city. I do not understand why we cannot at least drop food and bottled water to those who are on the brink of perishing. However, I also know that disasters are by their very nature chaotic. The best-laid plans have to adapt to the reality on the ground. I am sure there will be a commission a few years from now that will detail the myriad mistakes that were made. Moreover Bush, if he is still in office, will make sober sounding speeches saying that the United States will be prepared next time. Yet we all know that when things return to something resembling normal that we will go back to politics as usual.

Will they really? This disaster has the potential to spiral far beyond the flood ravaged and wind affected areas. Naturally, gasoline prices are sharply increasing across the nation. Nevertheless, I am more concerned about whether gas will be available at all. We are already seeing gas lines in places we do not expect, such as in Orlando, Florida. I read in the paper that my area is served by a petroleum pipelines from New Orleans that are not operating: there is no electricity to pump the oil up to be refined. Therefore, I will not be surprised if I am also a tangential victim of this storm. I guess if I survived gas lines in the late 1970s, I can do it again.

I am baffled and befuddled by some of my fellow citizens. I have never been to New Orleans or Biloxi and I am sure they are (were) wonderful places. Nevertheless, why would sensible people choose to move to a place that is ripe for disaster? New Orleans itself is below sea level. Storms happen. Are these Americans absent the common sense gene? I have a sister in Fort Lauderdale whose boat was damaged when Hurricane Katrina passed through. This was when it barely qualified as a hurricane. She is dealing with it. She and her husband dodged many hurricanes in their years in Florida. Every year it is one or more high stakes gamble with Mother Nature. This time their lifestyle received a bad wound. Is any coastal Florida lifestyle worth this gamble to life and property?

I imagine that New Orleans will be rebuilt. Yet I also wonder why. It is inevitable that something like this will recur some time in New Orleans’ future. It will happen to Miami one of these days too. Ditto for every major city along the East Coast and the Gulf Coast. Is it natural selection that causes us to move to these places? Or are we inveterate gamblers who thrill playing against the odds? Or are we so caught up in the present that we cannot imagine the probable consequences of our choice?

With sea temperatures warmer than a century ago, it does not take a meteorologist to understand cause and effect. The increased temperature adds to the potency of the hurricane. Seas are warmer at least in part because of manmade global warming. Some would argue that this is precisely what happened in New Orleans.

Meanwhile rising sea levels will slowly encroach on our coastal areas. Perhaps we can hold them off indefinitely. The Dutch seem to have figured out a way to reclaim the North Sea in spite of all odds. However, I personally doubt that Mother Nature can be defeated in the end. Every state needs laws that limit or even prohibit development near coastlines. It simply invites trouble.

As Cindy Sheehan is a harbinger about our War in Iraq, so is Hurricane Katrina a likely harbinger for our nation’s future. If we were smart, we would take heed. A few weeks ago, I said I felt like we were at the end of the best of times. Hurricane Katrina may make it official. I want to say that gas lines, a recession and serious inflation are not in our immediate future, but I feel it in my heart. Just as Iraq collapsed our house of cards internationally, Katrina shows just how vulnerable we are to natural disasters. Bush has been Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burned.

Therefore, my fellow Americans, it is past time for all of us to wake up. Do not smell the coffee. Smell the raw sewage and decaying bodies in New Orleans. Get used to the idea of costly gas and waiting in long lines for gas. You should hope that as inflation returns that your job is not a casualty. Admit that you sinned when you bought that SUV. I hope you can buy a hybrid at any price. Nevertheless, as I warned a couple times the era of cheap oil is over. It is time to acknowledge the obvious. You should downsize your life, pay down your debts, fatten your bank accounts and live prudently. You should be paying attention to macro trends. Do you live within a few miles of your job and convenient groceries? If you do not then you should be working to rearrange your life. You too may be like a victim of Hurricane Katrina if you are too dependent on your car.

Hurricane Katrina is likely to be the biggest natural disaster for my country in my lifetime. As horrible as 9/11 was, this disaster is far worse. If we must find someone to blame then we best look in the mirror. Yet so far, we do not seem to grasp its magnitude or ultimate significance. We think that in a few weeks or months that things will be back to normal. I hope so too. But I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore. A new and greyer dawn is breaking. It is time to peer over our windowsills, steel ourselves and grapple with its ugly reality.


One Response to “Time to take off the rose colored glasses”

  1. 4:42 am on September 2 2005, levee said:

    Spot on Mark. I often see people driving around Belfast in huge people-carriers. Often there are only one or two people in the vehicle.

    You are quite right to point out that the environmental problem is of our own doing. I would go a step further and suggest that not only do we need to scale down our live, but we need to reduce the population of the planet.

    We are fast outgrowing resources and the problem will only get worse as the population grows. I think people and governments around the world need to start thinking seriously about controlling population growth as well as addressing the existing environmental issues.

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