Wednesday, August 31, 2005

"They're tryin' to wash us away...."

As the situation in New Orleans decays from tragedy to travesty, we are reminded again that, despite our recent "John Wayne" culture, John Donne was indeed right, and "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." And government plays a bigger and bigger role in our more and more technological lives.

We might imagine or remember pictures of people in the South manning levees in hurricanes, bravely piling sandbags to stem rising water. But that was the rural South, a South that hasn't existed for nearly 100 years now, the South of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" that now only lingers on in memory and movies. New Orleans was evacuated; at least all of those who could afford to leave, or somehow manage. There was no one left "home" to man levees, and no sand, shovels, sandbags, or trucks, to make repairs possible. And this disaster has grown because of ineptitude, miscommunication, poor leadership. Sandbags that should have been dropped yesterday are only now being dropped, because helicopters were diverted from repairing levees to save a city, to rescuing individuals. and why didn't the levees hold? Why did the pumps fail? Because Katrina was overwhelming? Perhaps. Or perhaps because of government shortsightedness. Perhaps because the federal government, like Dick Cheney in the Vietnam War, had "other priorities."

Randy Newman's album "Good Old Boys" keeps going through my head now. "We've taken all you've given/It's gettin' hard just to make a livin'/Mr. President, have pity on the workin' man." In 1927, flooding destroyed much of the South, and the federal government looked on: "President Coolidge say, 'Little fat man, isn't it a shame/What the river has done to this poor cracker's land?' " New Orleans is underwater. 1.3 million people displaced from their homes for...weeks? Months? The largest port in the country is shut down, if only because none of the workers will be able to live in their homes and get to work until....when? No phones. No water. No electricity. The "energy of slaves" we are all used to relying on, is useless now. Cars won't help. Electricity is of no avail. All of our technology fails us now. It doesn't not comfort us; it does not save us. It burdens us, as we realize how much we depend on it.

As the New York Times says, we are now "beyond devastation," and not just in New Orleans. Entire towns in Louisiana and Mississippi are gone. Literally wiped off the map, and all that is left behind is debris. Much of the region is without power, which again makes cars useless: without electricity, gas pumps don't work. Without gas pumps, cars can't get more fuel. And then, where do they go? Where do 1.3 million people go while they wait for the flood waters to recede, for damage assessments to be done, for new construction to get underway?

And our leadership? New Orleans moved the city offices to Baton Rouge yesterday. President Bush, doing his best imitation of Calvin Coolidge, went to San Diego. He has promised to visit Louisiana on Friday, according to CNN last night. He is also reportedly "cutting" his vacation "short." Which is odd, since he was supposed to return to work in September, by his own announced schedule, and that would be: tomorrow.

And then, finally, faced with all of this, we may ask: where is God? This is, of course, a man-made disaster. No divine inspiration told people to build a major city below sea-level, or try to contain the flow of the Mississippi River, or dam a huge lake with levees. But it has been done, and it might have held, had the governments that serve the people truly served the people. That is a political issue now, however. Right now, the question is: what do we do? And where is God?

God is on a roof in New Orleans, waiting to be plucked off. God is in the streets of New Orleans, trying to keep order as a lone policeman in a mob of looters. God is in the Superdome, hot and sweaty in a fetid atmosphere. And God is the National Guardsman trying to help people there. God is the woman with all her possessions in two plastic bags in Slidell. God is the woman stranded in Mississippi, unable to buy gas from a pump that can't pump, unable to go forward, unable to go backward. "Lord, when did we see you?," the people ask at Judgment Day, in Matthew 25. Look around Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama: you'll see God. What do we do now? We help. We help in any way we can.

And when we have helped them, we help them make sure this never happens again. Not like this. Natural disasters are one thing. There will be legitimate questions asked, as to whether this had to happen at all. We need to look for answers to those questions, too; in time. But right now, whatever can be offered: money, labor, prayer; needs to be offered to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

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