It’s the drab, inadequate word we lean on when circumstances overwhelm experience. When we’ve ransacked our memory in vain for some experience that will let catastrophic events flicker in our imaginations.
It’s the word that relief workers and politicians and news reporters are applying now to Hurricane Katrina and the storm surge of anguish that slammed the Gulf Coast Monday. Unprecedented force. Unprecedented damage. Unprecedented grief. Unprecedented despair.
Corpses floating in flooded streets. Looting. Anarchy. Random gunfire, some of it at would-be relief deliveries. No food. No water. No clothes. No power. No civil order. No jobs. No homes. No goods to buy. No expectation that life will ever be the same.
Who among us – relying on television, newspapers and the Internet – can grasp the hopelessness that grips the people of New Orleans, Biloxi and other devastated communities? Or the anger and exasperation as they wait for help.
Bitter, pleading faces glare from TV screens, demanding to be rescued, and we wonder what more we can do. Donate more than we already have to the American Red Cross or the Salvation Army? Give blood? Sometimes, to be honest, we resent the appeal and silently insist that victims be reasonable.
At times like this, it’s the role of appropriate federal agencies to marshal the nation’s collective compassion and deliver a united response. Promptly, as befits an emergency. But the federal government is coming under valid criticism for failing to meet that responsibility. Katrina hit the southern tip of Florida on Thursday, Aug. 25, as a Class 1 hurricane and left as a Class 2 with nine fatalities in its wake. It headed back out to the warm, hurricane-friendly waters of the Gulf of Mexico and began to build strength. Forecasters warned that a Class 4 hurricane was aimed at New Orleans.
“This is the real deal,” Mayor C. Ray Nagin warned his community, encouraging residents to board up their homes and gas up their cars. An evacuation was ordered, although it was known that some 100,000 poor people were stuck there.
“We’re going to take the brunt of it,” Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco warned.
“If you don’t have no money, you can’t go,” said 74-year-old Hattie Johns.
President Bush himself declared a state of emergency. But then?
Hurricanes don’t sneak-attack. They advance like a horde, slow and loud. The swirling winds that leveled the Gulf coastline Monday, pushing a 20-foot wall of water, were raging at up to 140 mph. But the storm itself advanced at 7 mph. It couldn’t have been more anticipated if it had a publicist.
Before Katrina made landfall, Mayor Nagin said a weather forecaster had told him this would be the storm that New Orleans – built below sea level and protected by levees – “has feared for many years.”
Despite the warning, it took four days after the storm hit before U.S. military relief convoys rolled into the affected areas.