I started to say that I cannot find the words to describe my own thoughts about the hurricane/disaster relief/disaster that’s going on around the Gulf, but the truth is, I can. I know what I’m thinking and how to describe it, but none of it will make sense in a month or a year when all the facts are known, if they are ever known. So I offer scene-of-the-crime type observations, (and I can call them that even from a thousand or so miles away, because distance no longer provides detachment thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and the absolute pervasive need of all Americans (myself included) to focus on American events over all).
My first reaction, when it became clear that this wasn’t going to be a clean and clear recovery, was rather revealing: can this really happen here, in America? It appears that some of my cynicism has leached away, or perhaps always been false when it comes to the power and ability of my own country to protect its citizens (by which I mean me, don’t I? Probably so). Of course, of course, I understand on an intellectual level why there are already political charges about this lack of preparation and about the callousness toward disadvantaged groups, this feeling that, perhaps, in making plans for this kind of storm that these were considered the acceptable or even inevitable losses. My brain is half-ready to engage in these debates, to say: but of course it was the other side, of course they have destroyed my country and they don’t care for minorities and they started a war and all of these things have led us here. On a gut level, though, I’m not at all ready to engage in finger-pointing or screaming at any of the agencies or actors. I’m with the mayor of New Orleans in that I’d be happy not to see any press conferences about this until every survivor has been rescued. I wish the focus could remain there, and I wish that every PAC leader and Congressperson who’s made a single telephone call toward rallying the partisan troops to lay blame could, instead, donate a week’s salary and all of their office aides to the Red Cross. Wouldn’t it be nice to see Congress approve the funds necessary, then all get into school buses and troop down to Houston to serve food to the refugees? Perhaps they could pick up Jimmy Carter on the way, and he could teach them how to build houses. I have a feeling there will be more need of those skills than of blame and denigration, at least for a while.
That’s not to say that I don’t think things have gone wrong. Obviously, they have. When news agencies are quoting fatality figures at or near 10,000, that’s a crisis, that’s a shattering, heart-stopping blow to the Powers that Be. Let me step outside of my cynicism for a moment and say that I don’t think that number will be forgotten. Back into cynicism: American deaths always guarantee action, and that should be as true in America as it is in our “interests abroad.” Ten thousand dead promises me that someone will have to answer for this; I’m not sure that today is the day to figure out exactly who that is. It looks as though we’re going to be broken enough by this disaster without having to divide along party lines, at least not until things have dried out enough in Louisiana to allow the facts to surface.
There are lessons to be learned from everything, success and failure, and though I’m sure the practical lessons are those that the newspapers have been graphing all week — Lesson 1: Build stronger levies — I have a further suggestion. It may be time for America to really think about why we value the pursuit of futile goals. Time to grow up, U.S. of A., and recognize that it’s not always something to celebrate when you accomplish the impossible. Hooray for us, we built a city between a river, the Gulf of Mexico, and the nation’s second-largest salt-water lake, and the whole city is below sea level. So nature comes in and knocks it down, and we have two options: rebuild it and maintain it, or give it up. I know we will never give up, but I’m not sure that anyone is going to be willing to acknowledge what it will cost to take the first option. If the whole country had to take a vote on whether they’d be willing to pay more in taxes every year, or to give up other services and benefits, in order to maintain the safety of a city built on a delta, I can probably guess what the result would be (or at least what it would’ve been a month ago). I’m not sure which way I’d vote on that, by the way.
I just read this line in a movie review, but it seems to sum my thoughts up about the last week or so of news about this disaster very well: “…it begins with grief and proceeds with sadness toward horror. Its scenes are as cynical about international politics and commerce as I can imagine. I would like to believe they are an exaggeration, but I fear they are not.”