What can you say about horror?
Not much. Nothing pithy comes to mind, no commentary that rings quite true. As when terrorists struck nearly four years ago, America has been rendered aghast, this time not by man but by a terrorizing force of nature that has left possibly thousands dead and tens of thousands homeless.
As I write this, the rubble is still too thick, the debris and water too high, to guess at the number dead, missing or injured. Dumbstruck witnesses in New Orleans and along the Mississippi coast report dead bodies floating in waist-high waters, or lying unclaimed in blistering attics converted to coffins.
“Tend to the living” is the order of the day. Later, we’ll deal with the dead.
Once again, America finds itself at a loss for words. We can’t blame “those bastards” this time. Only, who? What? The gods? Mother Nature? Not even President George W. Bush can take the fall for this one, though some already are trying to affix blame. Katrina came because Bush refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, goes one story just off the spin machine.
Or it’s his materialistic hubris in the face of global warming, goes another. The New Orleans Times-Picayune has reported opinions that Bush’s diversion of funds from levee-stabilization projects to homeland security and the war in Iraq caused the breach that led to the deluge.
Whatever it was – or perhaps wasn’t – will be decided in due course. Or maybe there is no answer. We may have to accept that a hurricane on the order of Katrina is out of our hands. Some things can’t be helped. Nature, ever untamable, can’t be thwarted.
In the meantime, we are gripped by images of people waving flags from rooftops, or children crying for help. The thought of stifling heat, no food, no water, no power, no light, is chilling despite soaring temperatures. Suddenly, what usually happens to people whose lips we cannot read has happened here.
Last year’s tsunami that laid waste to another part of the world has visited our own national shores. No longer them, it is we who must reckon with unaccustomed hardship, deprivation and loss. The Third World, always safely distant from America’s dependable shores, is suddenly our world.
And unbelievable to generations that have known only plenty. No water? In Dasani Nation, water is everywhere, but this time none to drink. No food? Children hungry? This is the nation where everyone eats too much. No gas, no cars, no way out? In a country that eats, banks and shops from a car window. Impossible.
Such disaster surely couldn’t happen here, but it has. And even though nature is an equal-opportunity devastator, we can’t help noticing that the majority of those marooned and afflicted were the poor, and most of those – in New Orleans, at least – are black.
When we finally catch our breath and take a close look at Katrina, we’ll have to look at that, too. Why were so many left behind when what happened was not only possible, but also expected? If we can evacuate a city after it has been dealt a deathblow, why not before the fact?
It has always been unimaginable that we would be caught so unprepared for calamity, especially a hurricane, which solicitously gives us fair warning. Earthquakes sneak up. Terrorists rarely make appointments. But hurricanes give us ample time to prepare, to evacuate, to stock up. And yet, thousands of people either stayed or were left behind to ride out the storm.
All our notions of nightmare seem to have been released like time-trapped demons by the force of an otherworldly perfect storm. Dead bodies and the carcasses of family pets simmering in stagnant water are unthinkable. The unconscious mind, haunted by specters of disease, decay and deadly snakes, seeks respite in the cooler climes of hope and denial.
It is truly a horror, yet one barely begun.
What lies ahead is a test for all Americans, not just those directly affected. This is one of those times when we redefine ourselves by our thoughts and actions. Alongside the contempt we feel toward the lawless scourge unleashed by the floods – the looters stealing not bread but guns – we also feel grateful for the best within and among us.
Let’s hope our reserves of patience and generosity run deep in the weeks and months to come.
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