The full extent of damage to lives and property on the Gulf Coast is unknown, but experts are expressing certainty that in terms of what it will take to repair a significant part of the damage, it is the worst such disaster to afflict the United States. The scenes of people mourning their homes and loved ones, the utter powerlessness they feel in the face of this overwhelming destruction–my heart breaks when I think of the poor people of New Orleans, and I pray that the brave rescuers will persevere, that the dangers to public health are contained, and that healing will be powerful and speedy.
And because I am human and selfish too, I look around me and give thanks for the dry hills of California and my own life far from the rising waters.
Many years ago, I read a story by Doris Lessing about a being from another universe who was sent to San Francisco to warn the inhabitants that they were in grave danger of earthquakes. The being manifested in human form, seeking out opportunities to give his warning. In the end, he was mistaken for a deranged street person and arrested. My memory is leaky, but if I recall correctly, the story took the form of a dispatch from the alien to his home office: the most remarkable thing, he reported, was that everyone he met seemed to know about the danger already, and they just didn’t care!
I thought of this last night, sitting at my dinner table a block from San Francisco Bay, tsk-tsking over the lack of foresight Louisianans exhibited in establishing a major port at an elevation below sea level.
Of course, no part of the land is without risks. When people used to tell me they were afraid to live in San Francisco because of the earthquakes, I scoffed: when I was a kid in school, we had earthquake drills and since then, I’d been through many quakes unscathed. Besides, I said (if they were from the Midwest), at least we didn’t have blizzards and tornadoes, or hurricanes (if they were from the Southeast).
Yesterday I heard Mississippi governor Haley Barbour say that part of his state “looks like Hiroshima.” He was reaching for a figure of speech to express his shock and pain, the horror of unknown deaths lurking beneath the flood waters. But he chose an image of devastation created by our own hands, rather than the giant hand that brushed levees and buildings from the Gulf Coast like so many crumbs from a tablecloth. I wonder what the people of Hiroshima thought when they heard Barbour’s response. That now, at last, an inkling of empathy had emerged from the suffering of their tormentors? Or that once again, the enormity of what had been done by human beings to other human beings had been appropriated thoughtlessly, as a figure of speech?
Because America has escaped invasion and bombardment comparable to that experienced in Hiroshima or Dresden, London or Saigon, we tend to share a sense of immunity from ultimate disaster. When an earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused a tsunami to hit South Asia last year, commentators said that damage had been so great in part because the affected nations lacked the west’s superior warning systems and evacuation methods. This week on the radio, I listened to New Orleans residents who’d gotten out safely report on how it had taken two and one-half hours to make the normally fifteen-minute drive across the city in their private cars, how many people ran out of gas trying, how many were unable to find fuel at all.
So our superior evacuation method in this case was: every man for himself. Poor public transportation, understaffed emergency services, inadequate levees and pumping stations, National Guard members overseas rather than home doing what is needed–in other words, public provision for the common good–these things, as with so many other aspects of the commons, are neglected while the adventure in Iraq, the enriching of the oil industry, and tax refunds for the wealthy absorb our commonwealth.
Just to underscore the point, among the first things government has done to respond to Katrina is releasing millions of barrels of oil from our Strategic Petroleum Reserve to help oil companies whose ability to produce crude oil was damaged by the storm. The Gulf Coast produces enough oil to supply about 7 percent of U.S. demand. Using their typical creative math, oil industry analysts have already said they expect gasoline prices to rise to $4 a gallon due to Katrina. What they mean is that this disaster, like every one in recent memory, will be exploited for corporate profit.
Being human, our hearts are filled with compassion for the victims of Katrina. If we think about what might have prevented it, we think on a human scale: just as I ask myself why I continue living on the San Andreas Fault, I wonder why the denizens of New Orleans continue trying to pitch their tents below sea level. But I am beginning to think the warning we aren’t heeding is collective rather than individual. One reason Katrina was so enormous is that carbon dioxide emissions have heated Gulf waters, creating hospitable conditions for a storm on this scale.
I have the honor to serve on the Board of The Shalom Center, Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s center dedicated to seeking peace, pursuing justice, healing the earth and building community. In his newsletter today, Arthur described aspects of this disaster this way:
“By choking our planetary lungs with more and more CO2, Oil powers global scorching.
“Global scorching powers Hurricane Katrina.
“Katrina not only drowns New Orleans but disrupts Oil production.
“The disruption pushes Oil prices even higher, and the Oil companies may well make larger profits off smaller supplies.
“They use their super-profits to buy politicians who refuse to limit the use of oil and gasoline, and instead vote to feed still greater subsidies to Big Oil.
“And that speeds up global scorching.
“A PERFECT STORM OF CORPORATE PROFITS.”
If Arthur appeared in the public square to issue this warning today, would he be locked up as a crackpot like the character in Doris Lessing’s story? As in Lessing’s story, do we know it already and not care?