Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Oh, the Humanity…

Early on, someone on the news said that Hurricane Katrina was capable of producing a disaster of Biblical proportions. Later, the mayor of Biloxi said, “This is our tsunami.” It’s not possible to improve upon these observations – both are correct.

Indeed, words are not adequate to describe the scenes that have filled the television screens and on-line reports about the disaster that has befallen New Orleans, Biloxi, Gulfport, and other areas along the Gulf Coast. OK, so, on one level, we can see a graphic that shows that most of the city of New Orleans is below the level of the water in the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain; and so we can grasp that, when the protective levees around the city has been breached, it will begin to fill with water; but actually seeing it happen is not at all the same as grasping the concept. It’s possible to picture using the Louisiana Superdome as a refugee center; and it makes sense when you hear that this structure is located on one of the highest points of land in the downtown area. Then you see video of the holes in the rook caused by the winds; and the rain pouring through; and then the lines of people who have come there after the flooding began, and those evacuated there after being rescued from the rooftops in dramatic helicopter efforts made by the Coast Guard and the National Guard. Now, the talk is that these people will be evacuated by bus to the Astrodome in Houston, as the Superdome has no air conditioning, no water; the toilets and trash cans are overflowing; and the water around the stadium is now five feet deep and rising.

Evacuate to Houston by bus? There are, as of the last report I heard today, about 23,000 people there. Your average intercity bus (think: Greyhound) holds 47 people. That means that, if you were to move them all at one time, you’ll need 490 of these vehicles. Well, President Bush announced today that 500 buses will be coming to take those who need to be moved, so I guess that will do the job – but can you imagine going east down the highway while 500 buses are heading in the opposite direction? It boggles the mind!

Those buses may need to come back for a second round of passengers, as some say there could be as many as 100,000 people who thought they could “ride out” the storm in their homes, only to find that, having survived the winds and the rain, they cannot stay. Even if the floods don’t force them to leave, there’s no food; no water; no sanitation; no power (and so no air conditioning, or lights, or ability to cook, unless you have a gas stove or charcoal). You can’t travel; there are no stores open; no businesses operating; and it will be that way for MONTHS.

On the local news last night, there was a report about a family whose home had burned to the ground. They were all safe, no one was hurt – physically – but everything they owned was gone – and all the mementoes, all the little bits of “this and that” which anchor our memories, were gone – only the memories remain. They will rebuild the house; but it will never be the same, and it will take time. Now, this sort of thing happens around us all the time. Homes burn down, or are flattened in a storm, or submerged in a flood – and people bounce back, and rebuild, and get on with their lives. It usually doesn’t even make the news; or, if it does, it’s only for a moment. But now we’re talking about the homes, and the mementoes, and the “this and that” of the lives of the 485,000 people of New Orleans – and that doesn’t count the people of St. Bernard’s Parish, and Plaquemines Parish (both of which are still, for the most part) under water; or those in Biloxi, or Gulfport, or Gulf Shores, or any of the many small villages and towns along the Gulf Coast that were affected by Hurricane Katrina – for many of these places were simply obliterated by the winds and the storm surge. How do we grasp this?

During the reports aired while the storm was coming on shore, there were segments that featured people who had thought they could stay behind, and “ride out” the storm in their house, or apartment, or business, or hotel. I had to ask myself, why would anyone take such a chance? Then it dawned on me: we don’t really think we’re going to die. It’s like being able to grasp the concept, but not the reality, like knowing New Orleans is below the water level, yet being astounded when it floods, or seeing a structure like the Superdome, which looks massive, and so appears to be impervious to the storm suddenly springing leaks with holes in the roof. We don’t believe we’re going to die – and the proof of this, among other things, is that we all too often cling to our sins. Oh, we probably repent, and wish we hadn’t done what we had done, and truly mean it when we ask God to forgive us, and to help us be transformed, so that we don’t do it again. Then we repeat the behavior, and go through the whole cycle once again. “I survived Hurricane Betsy in 1965; I survived Hurricane Camille in 1969; so I figured that this one wouldn’t be any worse…” We all do it; we’re all there in that situation; we’re all, in one way, stupid – because we don’t think it’s going to happen to us. We’re not going to die; we’re not going to have to give an account of ourselves, and of our lives, before the righteous Judge… We need to open our eyes; and realize that we ARE going to depart this life one day – and maybe sooner than we’d think. There are, potentially thousands of people who thought they’d be safe in their homes who didn’t make it out, and won’t be on a bus to Houston, or to another refugee center; or staying with family or friends in another area, or in a hotel or motel, until they find out if and when they can return to their homes. Many people survived, and will come through this, and rebuild their homes and businesses, and lives, and get on with them. Others, perhaps thousands, will be found in the homes they thought would shelter them, killed by the floodwaters, or buried in debris – and others will never be found at all.

Please forgive the length of this blog. I haven’t yet covered all that I want to say, as I try to work all this out for myself, if not for anyone else. That will come later – right now, it’s time for our regular monthly pannikhida service. Please remember to pray for those who died, that the Lord will have mercy on them. Please remember to pray for those who survived, and face a most uncertain future right now, that the Lord will have mercy, and provide for them. Please remember to pray for our leaders, who must make difficult decisions as they try to come to grips with an incredible natural disaster; and for the care-givers who seek to help those in need, that the Lord will strengthen and guide them and keep them safe.