But let me start from the beginning.
When I began to hear weather forecasters predicting the devastation that could be wrought by a strengthening hurricane Katrina - straight from a category 1 cat-and-mouse with Florida - I sat up straight and took real notice. As I continued to watch and monitor, the predictions became ever more dire, ever more high pitched...until finally the newscasters were telling Gulf state residents to vacate their homes or risk losing their lives. My heart beat quickly as I watched these reports, and my curiosity of general human nature wondered whether or not these screaming predictions would be taken seriously. After all, how many times in the past had coastal residents listened attentively to frenzied forecasters as they predicted "ground zero's" location - triggering disaster-happy news outlets to send their breathless reporters fanning out like spokes from the site of expected landfall? How many hours had been spent fighting the Fellow Man for supplies, boarding windows, and sitting in interminable evacuation lines - only to find later that Hurricane Big'un had fizzled to a tropical storm before reaching shore? Or worse, that Hurricane Bullseye had remained furiously alive - only to hit the little town of Unprepared located miles away from "ground zero"? Let's face it...human nature is human nature, and crying wolf is crying wolf. Sooner or later, too many unfulfilled armageddons are going to cause more than one person to succumb to alarm fatigue. And so was the case, here. I watched intently as newscasters interviewed Gulf residents - many of whom were making calculated decisions not to leave, and others who had no means of leaving. Neither category of person seemed overly alarmed, and some referred to storms past that had often proved much less spectacular than predicted. Despite my complete understanding of the cavalier attitude, I must admit that the second category of people intrigued me: If push really did come to shove, how was it possible not to be able to leave?
As the storm's intensity continued to grow and the forecasts became more shrill, my own skepticism of the predictions began to give way to slight belief in their veracity. Slowly, reality began to seep in and I began to wonder what I would do in the shoes of those people who claimed that they had no means to leave. Accordingly, I started mulling over options while talking with friends and family: If I had no car and no money, how would I get myself out of town? Well, I most likely still had two feet. I would walk. If I thought the situation desperate enough, I would start out early and walk for two days if I had to. Ok, well and good...but then I added more difficulty to my scenario: What if I had small children? Or what if I had elderly relatives who could not walk to safety? I couldn't just leave them...so what would I do then? And slowly I began to see and understand that - if the storm did indeed hit a large city like New Orleans - the chances were very real that not everyone would be able to evacuate prior to lights-out. I remember being floored by that realization, because I had never before even considered the possibility that a person under evacuation orders would not be able to evacuate. Still, though, the stubborn geek within me refused to completely swallow the completely helpless theme. To this day, I believe deep within that a determined individual would find a way - like the young teenage boy who commandeered a bus and drove his family and neighbors out of harm's way. Where there's a will...
Finally, after all of the predictions and hours of pre-landfall coverage, Katrina slammed into New Orleans at estimated category 4 force. I remember initially thinking to myself that this was one of the few cases I could remember wherein a hurricane had actually landed so close to where the newscasters had said it would. I watched as the obligatory lunatic reporters covered the storm from the areas where it was most vicious. Ruefully, I found myself wondering how each reporteratti member considered his/her staked-out position along the storm track: If the positioning resulted in only a slight de-moussing of perfect hair, was the job considered a failure? If the positioning resulted in a newscaster screaming into a microphone while clinging to a stationary pole - legs flapping in the breeze - was the job considered a success? Was there hazard pay? Whatever the case, I watched the coverage far more than I should have - given my rueful musings. I watched as the reporters dodged flying objects ripped from foundations, as weathermen and weatherwomen predicted the storm's track with breathless gravity, as news anchors monitored the levies - waiting to pounce firmly on the first evidence of a breach. I watched until the wee hours of the morning...and by the time I went to bed that night, every 'caster and commentator was convinced that we had dodged a bullet. Every news outlet was sighing relief that Katrina had not been as bad as predicted. In fact, as it so happened, I did read much later that the storm had actually made landfall as a category 3 storm. Quite literally, then, Katrina was not as bad as initially suspected.
But then came the aftermath. The first time I realized that something was dreadfully wrong post- storm was on the Tuesday after landfall. On that day, news outlets began to discover that - as many had predicted and more had feared - the levies in New Orleans had not held. The city was flooded in many areas, and reporters were just starting to realize the scope of the disaster. As I watched the coverage, I began to fathom that things were bad, but the sheer magnitude of just how bad was only made clear when I started to watch new footage of those who had been trapped in the aftermath. As far as the eye could see, tired, bleary-eyed people were wandering the streets - clutching what few possessions they had as they walked with closely-held family members towards...what were they walking towards? I gasped inwardly as I heard the people pleading for assistance. "Help us!" one said. "Someone please tell us where to go," said another. "We just need to know where to go." I was horrified...but perhaps not for the reason that one might suspect: The first plea I could understand perfectly. "Help us!" makes alot of sense when you're trapped on a roof mere feet from rising flood waters, or when you are cracking with thirst as an incredibly hot wind tortures your skin. What I couldn't understand was the "tell us where to go" part of the plea. Looking back, I think that my lack of understanding was due mostly to the fierce independent streak that I tend to nurture. That characteristic within me would allow me to understand initial shell-shock, loss, and bewilderment, but it would not allow me to accept complete and utter helplessness. Where do I go? I don't stay in the reeking city. I walk out of it - if need be - or die trying. If I have family that cannot go with me, I am no longer constrained as I might have been before the storm. If I leave now, it will not be to flee the storm's wrath and save my life...it will be to launch a desperate attempt to get help for those that I love. I mean, how many old TV shows have we seen where Lassie leaves Timmy in the well to run for help, or little Gertrude leaves Pa gunshot in the gully to clamor out of the forest and look for the search posse?
Looking back at my emotions while watching the coverage, I will never forget that absolute sense of bewilderment. 20-20 hindsight, though, has helped me to understand the predicament a little better: How hardy can one be after surviving a hurricane-kicking for the last 24 hours? No food. No water. No strength. No clothes but those on one's back. And probably no money, either. Obviously, it's easy to find fault from the comfort of an easy chair. Still, though, that staunch geek within won't let me allow others to accept defeat so easily. If one has no strength to save one's self or one's family...then one perishes in the effort. But at least there was the effort.
As I continued to watch the coverage, I also began to feel myself becoming angry. That sense first dawned on me when I saw people milling around on a bridge to absolutely nowhere - afraid to go to the Superdome (who could blame them?) but not proceeding out of the city itself. At the point of watching this, I began to ask myself: Where are the trucks with ice? Where is the food? Where is the water? As I had tried to temper my initial bewilderment over the victims' reactions, so I tried now to temper my bewilderment over the government response. "Remember," I told myself, "the city is flooded. It's easy to say 'where are the trucks with ice?' but how does one roll them in when the ground underneath is quicksand?" As before, I still clung to my "where there's a will..." repetitive, and as before, I still think to this day that there had to be a way. Still, though, I did attempt to temper my incredulity, and I did meet with some success.
As one day led to another with no apparent relief for victims, I finally had cause to stand up and cheer when troops at last arrived and supplies finally began to make their way to those who so desperately needed them. I leapt inwardly as I saw a line of huge vehicles roll in - one after the other - and felt cooled within as I saw thankful residents receiving their first bags of ice or bottles of water. Hope continued as huge buses arrived to evacuate the Superdome, and aid from across the country began to poor in. This was the America that I knew, and I was thankful that it had not abandoned its countrymen in their time of need. True...my critical eyes had seen fault on both sides - in the initial ineptitude of the government response at all levels, and in the complete and utter dependence of so many of the survivors. But my spirit soared when I saw wrongs righted, mistakes corrected, and the grand heart of the citizens of this country as it burst and overflowed.
As time went on and the streets of New Orleans dried out, it wasn't long before the nation was battening the hatches for yet another storm - hurricane Rita. As I watched coverage in deja vu, I thought about the lingering lessons that I had learned from so vicious a teacher as Katrina: First and foremost, Americans have an overwhelming capacity for compassion, and they are so blessed with giving hearts. But ever so secondly, a new dark and sinister realization reached out and tapped me on the shoulder with a cold touch of reality: Crap happens. As Americans, we somehow seem to arrogantly assume that we are immune to the wrath of nature. If a catastrophe occurs, We are America, and that isn't supposed to happen, here. And if perchance it does happen, we (myself included) expect immediate relief and assistance - unlike just about everyone else in the world. The supply convoys must suddenly appear. Aid must fall like manna from the sky. And if it doesn't - despite the presence of hell and high water - someone must be to blame. But make no mistake: When there is a drought, we will go thirsty. When there is a famine, we will go hungry. When there is a hurricane, no amount of squalling or finger-pointing will stay its fury and damage. In the end, we are only human, and we are all fallible. And if we are such as individuals, how much more so are we in the collective? In a crisis, one can never completely depend on the fallible collective that is the government. In those times, one can only expect to depend on a minimum of two things: First on God. And then on oneself.
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