After the Deluge
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 25, 2005
The words emerged from the car radio’s speakers, loud and clear:
Who would have ever thought that those would be words we would hear, here in America?
When the tsunami hit East Asia last winter, there was a genuine outpouring of sympathy for its numberless victims—an upsurge of compassion—a general need to “do something” for “those poor people”, for those people “over there”.
(There was also, perhaps, an undercurrent of relief that this horrible natural disaster was “over there”, and not here; that certainly in a nation as strong—and as smart—and as rich—and as prepared for anything as America is supposed to be— that nothing like this could ever happen. We would face our share of natural disasters—“acts of God”—certainly; even our much vaunted Department of Homeland Security couldn’t protect us from those—but when disaster struck, we knew, America would be ready. We are a nation accustomed to getting our way; to meeting the challenges that history dishes out. We conquered the Moon in eight years. After all, we conquered Iraq in three weeks. No force of history or nature can ever bring down the U.S.A. We stand on top of the world.
But then, the winds came, and the waters rose, and the levees broke. And all hell broke lose. And New Orleans (along with a hundred other communities along the Gulf Coast) was brought to its knees. And America was taught an important lesson in humility (perhaps the main lesson that history teaches).
Upon the question of how well we have learned this lesson, perhaps much of the future of this land of ours will now depend.
What, exactly, are the lessons that Katrina has taught us?
First, we have witnessed again the awesome power of nature.
After the tsunami last winter, Rev. Kathryn Bert wrote: “We long for meanings and reasons, causes and control—and sometimes tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis just happen. We want to put a title to it, but ‘Sometimes the old ocean god stands upright and roars and the earth shakes under the water.’” We stand humbled by the power of nature.
Which is where we ought to stand.
In a sermon preached at Duke University on September 4, the Rev. Dr. Sam Wells reminded us that Katrina is, first of all, a story about Nature:
Let us never forget that we human ones are part of nature—and that whatever we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves. No longer can we look upon global warming as merely some “hair-brained theory” being used by liberal or socialist politicians to discredit our President and his party, and undermine the American economy. The fact of the matter is that we are having more hurricanes—and stronger hurricanes—because the climate of the Earth is changing. It is changing because of the higher levels of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere because of increased development and industrialization.
The Kyoto Protocol imposes upon the nations of the world some modest controls upon the emission of greenhouse gasses in order to slow the increase in global warming. Yet, the United States is not a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol (indeed, one of the very first actions of the Bush Administration in 2001 was to withdraw our nation from the Kyoto Process). So like Nero who fiddled while Rome burned, our leaders fiddled while new Katrinas churned.
In October 2004, a dire warning was given about the deteriorating state of the levees in New Orleans, and the need for action to be taken if a disastrous flood was to be averted. Where did this article appear? Was it hidden away in some scholarly journal, published in a top secret government report? Hardly. It appeared in National Geographic Magazine, in an article on the Louisiana wetlands.
Early in the year 2001, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, issued a report predicting that there were three major threats for a catastrophic emergency facing the United States. One was a terrorist attack in New York City; second was an earthquake in San Francisco; third was a Category Five hurricane breaching the levees and causing massive flooding in New Orleans. (I think if I owned a home in San Francisco, now would be the time to sell, and head east, and inland.)
In spite of these dire warnings, and in spite of protests from the entire Louisiana congressional delegation (Republicans and Democrats alike), the Bush administration reduced flood control spending in Louisiana from $ 69 million in 2001 to $ 36.5 in 2005. The Army Corps of Engineers budget for the area around Lake Pontchartrain was slashed from $ 14.25 million in 2002 to $ 5.7 million this past year. For the first time in 37 years, the Corps of Engineers stopped all major maintenance work on the levee system.
This was a major failure of planning and foresight—and one that could have been avoided had the eyes of our leaders and our national resources, not to mention our precious human resources, not been diverted elsewhere. (It is estimated that the Iraq war has thus far cost our nation $ 196 billion dollars, and the tab is still mounting by the minute).
Katrina exposed gross incompetence and shortsightedness at every level of government. Who can forget the pictures of those submerged school buses, sitting in a New Orleans parking lot—because neither the Mayor nor the Governor nor the Secretary of Defense nor the Department of Homeland Security nor the President—had ordered all means necessary to evacuate the city before it was too late.
Now, I would agree that there has probably been too much finger pointing already, and there is more than enough blame to go around. But the fact of the matter is that stuff like this shouldn’t happen in America. But it did.
The winds of Hurricane Katrina blew off the façade of American invulnerability—our unquestionable ingenuity—and, let us at least hope, has stifled our national hubris, and taught us an important lesson in humility.
Nature will out, and wind and water will reclaim their own, sooner or later. When we human ones do not seek out ways to live in harmony with Nature, Nature becomes a deadly terrorist, increasingly threatening at our gates. That isn’t harebrained theology or left-wing politics; that’s science.
Nature (and history) also have other ways of reminding us what’s really important. As Max Lucado has written:
We are being reminded once again that our lives do not consist in the abundance of our possessions, and that in the photo of a riverboat casino washed ashore and demolished, there is a symbol for our society and our culture. “Raging hurricanes and broken levees have a way of prying our fingers off the stuff we love,” Max Lucado continues. Those things once numbered as precious to us mean very little when real life intercedes, and we come face to face with what is really important.
What is really important is life—people, and family, and home, and community. That is how we measure the true worth of our natural soul. That is where our time and talent and treasure belong.
Natural disasters like Katrina reminded us how vulnerable we all are. As the President himself put it:
But the winds of Katrina also blew off the façade that covered so much of the poverty in this land of fabled wealth, which prides itself on being the richest on Earth. In the wake of Katrina, we saw clearly that parts of New Orleans (and by extension, parts of just about every major American city) have more in common with cities of the Third World than with upscale sections of their own locales, just a few blocks away.
The fact of the matter is that, while we may be the wealthiest nation in the world, in terms of the distribution of income equality, we rank near the bottom among developed nations. In terms of infant mortality, we rank not first, but thirty-seventh (just behind Burundi and Andorra). The fact of the matter also is that income inequality has grown steadily over the past five years. There are now 1.5 million more American families in poverty than there were four years ago.
We can hope that one of the lessons of Katrina is that a nation can not exist half rich and half poor, and that we can no longer be a nation, as Preacher T. D. Jakes said which “overlooks the poor and suffering and continues past the ghetto on our way to the Mardi Gras.”
We can hope that our leaders are learnng this lesson, but I will admit that I am not optimistic. This past week, when Chris Matthews asked John McCain how we were going to pay for this massive cleanup effort, McCain replied, “Well, Chris, we’re just going to have to cut social programs.”
When will they ever learn? When will we ever learn?
The way to end poverty, these men in power seem to think, is to make the poor poorer, just as the way to make America safer is to cut funding for projects which protect us all from natural disasters. If that’s not Orwellian, then what is?
No, Hurricane Katrina reminds us that the Mardi Gras is over (if there ever was a Mardi Gras for most Americans), and that the soul of America is sick. It is sick because we have watched as our civic culture has been steadily eroded in the name of commerce. The ties that bind us are severed because the public sector has been gutted in the name of “private enterprise”—the fruits and profits of which make their way into the hands and pockets of fewer and fewer people.
The winds of Katrina have blown away any pretense we might have of American superiority in the area of human relations. It has exposed gaping class and race voids in our civic fabric. Is it really incidental that of 35,000 refugees in the hell hole of the Superdome, only about 100 were white? I’m not saying that there was overt racism at work here, or that there was some great racist conspiracy to eliminate the black folk of New Orleans. But the ties between race and poverty in America are closely intertwined, and we don’t deal with them simply by continuing to make the rich richer, and pretending the problem doesn’t exist, or that it is poor people’s own fault if they’re poor.
Katrina sounded a clarion alarm bell for America to wake up. I don’t know if that alarm is the voice of God, or the voice of History. But I know we refuse to heed it at our own peril. And if we continue to fiddle, and amuse ourselves to death, and hide in our gated communities, and refuse to face up to the problems we face, then sooner or later, it will be our own communities which will be burning, or flooded, or otherwise devastated or in ruins.
The deluge has ended. But whether the days ahead will bring the sunshine of a new morn, or merely more storms, only time can tell.
But let us be prepared, by opening our arms, and opening our hearts, and engaging the best that is within this nation to rebuild not just New Orleans and the Gulf, but the entire civic fabric of this hard land. Taking care of one another, especially the weakest and most vulnerable among us, is not just a private concern, nor should it be seen as primarily a private concern. It is also a community concern, and a public responsibility of us all. Let us engage the true American spirit, not just to clean up the mess which these storms have left, but to heal the sickness at the heart of our national soul.