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Opinion

A disaster ‘beyond comprehension’

David Sarasohn The Oregonian

It’s a story out of science fiction, out of Cold War nightmares, out of emergency management worst-case planning exercises.

Tuesday, a major American city was suddenly gone.

After a time when New Orleans was supposed to have escaped the full brunt of a massive hurricane blast, it was as if Katrina took a giant departing swipe at the levee keeping Lake Pontchartrain out of the city. By Tuesday afternoon, 80 percent of New Orleans was under water, and the city was on the way to being entirely evacuated – and nobody could say for how long.

As a vicious punch at an American city, there may be nothing like it since the earthquake that broke and then burned San Francisco in 1906. And while San Francisco’s recovery began as soon as the flames went out, a flood – a flood thickened with oil and gas leaks – is different, with the waters covering the city turning ever more toxic.

Especially when there’s no clear place for the water to go. Especially when somewhere in the waters, encountered or avoided, are bodies that can’t be counted for weeks. Especially when, asked what the future will look like, nobody can say.Especially when people publicly wonder about whether the city can ever be rebuilt, whether New Orleans might become a match not for Atlanta but for Atlantis.

As oceanographer Paul Kemp of Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center told the Associated Press: “There are some disasters beyond comprehension, and I think this is one of them.”

The way to gauge a natural disaster is not to look at nature; it’s to look at the people the disaster hit. Tuesday’s live interviews, from numb residents looking for their homes and families to public leaders expected to be in control of resources and planning, had a stunned, wide-eyed quality, a sense that people were being asked questions to which there were no answers.

Everything just hung in the air, like the people being rescued from roofs and swept up to the sky dangling from helicopters.

“We’ve never seen anything like this. The devastation is overwhelming,” Captain Bruce Jones of Coast Guard rescue, the people piloting those helicopters, told CNN. “We’re arriving at flooded areas, where we see handkerchiefs waving from roofs.”

Sept. 11 saw more deaths – although the final toll in New Orleans, and in the swath sweeping east along the Gulf Coast through Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, won’t be totaled for a long time – but surrounding the World Trade Center was an intact city. The flooding of New Orleans is different, a cataclysm leaving no place to stand to survey it and start over, and hardly any way for those trying to manage it even to speak with each other.

As night fell, not only were the conditions of survival collapsing, but looting and gunfire were spurting through New Orleans and nearby lands. A chunk of the United States was turning into an enclave of the Third World.

Sept. 11, of course, was not only a city disaster, but a question about what kind of country we were. And so is the agony of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

It has happened this way before.

In “Rising Tide,” John Barry argued that the unimaginable (until now) Louisiana floods of 1927 – which came down the river, not out of the gulf – changed the country. To Barry, the floods made Americans reconsider common responsibilities, leading to the more active New Deal federal government.

It’s hard to look at the TV footage out of New Orleans, at the great city turned into what is now called an urban swamp, at the certainty that what’s beneath those waters can be worse than anything on the surface, without thinking that such times are why we are one country.

The San Francisco earthquake, a sudden erasure of a major American city possibly unmatched until Tuesday, caught the imagination and drew the vibrant involvement of the entire nation – at a time when the nation had much less ability to understand just what had happened.

From all over the country, boxcars streamed into the Bay Area carrying signs, “More to Follow.”

The support flowing into the swamp that was New Orleans comes with an uncertain future, and a strategy that can emerge only as the days pass. But it needs to carry a clear message:

More to follow.

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