The Jackals after the Storm
The damage in New Orleans and southern Mississippi from Hurricane Katrina may have taken more lives than 9/11 — at least that’s what experts are estimating right now.
And, as with 9/11, the thousands of tragic stories took place in the context of many acts of heroism, sacrifice, and simple kindness. We hear many of these good stories — and there are doubtless many others, whose participants wouldn’t dream of telling anyone about their own courage or decency.
Whenever there’s a breakdown in the social order there are also people who quickly reveal that with them, at least, civilization is not part of their nature, it’s an external restraint, and the moment it’s gone, they’ll take any advantage they can.
We see the footage of these jackals on television, looting whatever they can take from stores … or neighbors’ houses. Some of them might be taking it to protect from looters so they can restore it to their neighbors when they come back. We can’t know other people’s motives.
But most of the looters are probably exactly what they seem: thieves. It’s depressing to watch people profiting from others’ misery.
Most depressing, for me at least, are the jackals of the news media. Most are simply reporting what happens. But there are some …
I think of Geraldo, standing in the midst of human misery, condemning those who "allowed this to happen." He’s hardly alone, though.
The governor of Mississippi, for instance, was pressed hard by a television news interviewer until he finally said, "I know what you want me to say — that the federal government dropped the ball on this. But they didn’t. They were as prepared as anyone could have been, and they’ve done everything that could be done." (Or words to that effect).
A constant theme in the news media has been: Blame the federal government. Most particularly, blame President Bush.
And there was Jesse Jackson, claiming that if we hadn’t been fighting the war in Iraq, we would have had more resources and money to take care of this disaster.
It’s as if the media jackals and the spokesmen of the Left were all starring in a satire that made fun of their own stupidity. Not even their worst enemy could make them look as foolish as they’re making themselves appear.
They Think That Bush Is God
Even the most rabid Republican wouldn’t ascribe divine powers to President Bush. But the jackals do — in a negative sense. They mock anything he actually does; but let a hurricane strike the gulf coast and a few levees break, and suddenly he has failed us.
Let’s see … what was it he was supposed to have done?
Stopped the hurricane? Slackened it? Kept the rain from falling?
No, no, of course not, the jackals reply. He should have been better prepared to deal with it, that’s all.
No, says another, he should have seen to it that all the poor people were evacuated from New Orleans and southern Mississippi!
They wouldn’t have had to evacuate, says yet another, if President Bush had seen to it that the levees were high enough and strong enough to protect New Orleans from flooding.
These clowns howl when President Bush does things that the Constitution requires him to do — like, say, nominating Supreme Court justices and UN ambassadors.
But let a disaster strike, and they condemn him for not doing things that no President has the power to do.
Like forcing the evacuation of citizens from danger zones. (Remember Mount St. Helens, and the people who refused to go?)
Or intervening in state affairs without the invitation of the governor, unless they’re in violation of federal law, which nobody was.
As for Jesse Jackson, the problem wasn’t lack of money. All the money in the world couldn’t have made the water evaporate any faster from the below-level streets of New Orleans.
And if every soldier from the Iraq War had been home instead, they would not have been standing by waiting for Katrina to strike so they could rush in and deliver supplies and rescue people that no one imagined would need rescuing.
Of course none of these people really think President Bush could have predicted or prepared any better than he did. There are agencies that are supposed to prepare, and they did their job up to any reasonable standard. Only idiots would really believe that any part of this disaster or its aftermath was the fault of the President.
The trouble is, they think we are the idiots. They think that if they loudly ask, "Why wasn’t President Bush ready for this?" the American people will swallow the implied accusation and blame him for not protecting us from … from the weather.
Bush was elected President, not God.
The Problem Was Foreseen
The sad thing is that the problem was foreseen. It’s been known for more than a century that New Orleans was one of the most vulnerable cities in the world.
It’s below sea level, for pete’s sake. It wasn’t when they started building it, but it is now. The weight of buildings on the spongy ground of the Mississippi delta compresses it and squishes it out and the ground subsides.
Nature has a solution for this, of course: It’s called "flooding." The Mississippi is supposed to spill over its banks every spring and when it finally subsides, it’s supposed to have carved itself new channels and deposited silt from Montana and Minnesota throughout the delta from Natchez to New Orleans.
But that pattern doesn’t fit with our human desire to stake out a piece of ground, build things and plant things on it, and have it stay the way we left it, year after year.
So the Army Corps of Engineers spent many years "taming" the Mississippi — lining it with levees to prevent it from spilling over its banks. The floods that once enriched the soil of America’s middle were ended.
Above all, New Orleans was kept dry. But not high and dry. It got lower and lower and lower, until you look up from the French Quarter and watch big ocean-going ships pass by on the Mississippi, floating so high that you realize their bottoms are higher than the streets of the city.
When I first heard that Katrina was going to be a category five hurricane and it was heading for New Orleans, my immediate statement was, "New Orleans is below sea level. I sure hope the levees hold." And I’m not even an expert.
Everybody always knew that there was a danger that a hurricane might raise the level of the river and Lake Pontchartrain so high that the levees would break.
But on what day was it politically possible to do anything about it?
For good or ill, decisions like spending enormous amounts of tax money to raise and thicken the levees have to be made by politicians, and the very nature of democratic government makes it highly unlikely for us to get anything done that won’t show benefits in time for the next election.
There are exceptions: The Interstate Highway System only got started because of fear of Communism and nuclear weapons — we needed a road system that would let us move our military swiftly across country. Later, we saw all kinds of economic benefits — but what made it politically possible at first was fear.
The Louisiana Purchase, Alaska (i.e., "Seward’s Folly") — their benefits were obvious and yet they were sharply criticized. Unless someone saw a way to make quick money out of it, these things rarely happened.
So … what governor or state legislature, what mayor or city council, what Congress or President could be rationally expected to say, on one particular day, "We’re going to spend a hundred million dollars raising the levees around New Orleans, and another twenty million establishing a national fleet of evacuation buses that will go and evacuate the poor from densely populated cities that might be threatened by hurricanes someday."
The very jackals who are now criticizing President Bush for not being prepared would have absolutely crucified him for "pork barrel politics" if he had proposed dumping that much money on raising the levees around New Orleans, and as for the fleet of evacuation buses — he would have been mercilessly ridiculed for even proposing it.
It’s only after the disaster that all the solutions look obvious and everybody is full of advice on what should have been done.
Again, the news people who hate Bush for being President (and hate us for reelecting him) know all this. They know that he has done nothing wrong. But it’s an opportunity to damage him, and they can’t bring themselves to let it go by unused. Because there are people stupid enough to think that there really was something the President should have done, and a way he could have done it.
On Sunday I was talking with a good friend — Mike Lewis, who teaches physical geography at UNC-G — and he raised the real question: "Are we dumb enough to rebuild New Orleans in the same place?"
"People are being defiant," he said. "We’ll rebuild it! They can’t stop us!"
But there’s no "they." Wind patterns are notoriously difficult to impress. It’s all about risk assessment. Such a storm will happen again. It might not be for another fifty or a hundred years. But it might be next year. It might be next week.
I suggested that they ought to spend the millions of dollars it would take to salvage the entire French Quarter, move all the buildings out, move in a billion tons of earth to raise the land well above sea level, and then put the buildings back.
It would be run as a historical site/amusement park. A tourist destination.
But the rest of New Orleans would be shut down. The levees would be torn down and the whole area would be redesignated a flood plain, with elevated roads to get tourists to and from New Orleans — like the roads that already exist elsewhere in Louisiana.
In other words, give it back to the Cajuns and the gators.
What would we do with all those people? Give them assistance to relocate. The refugees who come to Greensboro, for instance, shouldn’t just be fed and housed, they should be helped to find jobs and reestablish themselves in their new home — here.
The great institutions of New Orleans — schools and universities and churches and sports teams — should be transplanted elsewhere. Wake Forest University is no longer in Wake County and it’s doing fine.
And those who can’t bear to let New Orleans die should rebuild that ribald-yet-graceful culture — at Baton Rouge.
There is simply no excuse for rebuilding in the same spot.
Even Californians have learned from earthquakes by changing their building methods so that new buildings do a good job of riding out earthquakes.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Californians are smart.
Take Balboa Island, for instance, or Venice Beach. There’ll be a tsunami someday, and there is zero chance of any survivors on Balboa Island if the triggering earthquake is close to the coast.
But people still pay enormous sums of money for the privilege of living there.
We humans are such … optimists! Or — wait — is the correct term "fools"?
The odds of another category five hurricane hitting New Orleans are identical with the odds of a tsunami sweeping over Balboa Island and scouring it bare:
One hundred percent.
The only question is when. But it will happen. And still we build there.
The reason New Orleans will almost certainly be rebuilt on the same site is simple: People own property there.
They can’t stand the thought of losing it. They have invested money in it. So even if the only way to make New Orleans safe is to build levees so ridiculously high and strong that they make it the most ugly city in the world, surrounded by huge concrete-lined dikes, people will insist on doing it.
Unless they take so long to "improve" the levees that people forget Katrina and start putting it off and finally abandon the project. Back to business as usual.
Why Didn’t the People Leave Town?
One question I’ve heard several people ask about the hurricane is, "I’m sorry these people are suffering, but why didn’t they leave town? They were warned!"
They were warned, but they were poor.
The people I’ve heard say this are people who have never been truly poor a day in their lives.
But there were thousands of people in New Orleans who had no money, no car, nowhere to go, and nowhere to stay once they got there.
Did you go down and offer any of them a ride and a few rooms in your house where they could stay till the storm was over? If not, then don’t start judging them because they didn’t get out in time.
Besides, they thought it was a hurricane — high winds, lots of rain. The terrible damage and loss of life came the next day, in the aftermath, as the rains upstream added to the storm damage by flooding so intensely that the levees gave out.
If we find out that somebody knew the levees would break and didn’t give warning, then we have somebody to blame. But my guess is that nobody knew. Maybe they should have — but that’s second-guessing. After something happens, it’s always obvious that people "should have known" it could happen.
Again, I’ll take the critics seriously when one of them shows me footage or paper that demonstrates that they knew and gave warning that the levee would break, and nobody listened.
Geraldo? Did you give that warning? Let’s see you rerun that moment of wisdom and prescience, and then I’ll tolerate your accusations of others for "not being ready."
When you’re poor you don’t have choices. That’s one of the main reasons we don’t like poverty.
Who Were These People?
And it was one of the main reasons New Orleans was such a good city, despite its many problems. It wasn’t a bad place to be poor.
The streetcar and bus system worked — public transportation could take you wherever you needed to go, and without making you wait for an hour.
The climate is warm so you don’t have to pay for much heating in the winter, and if you don’t have air conditioning, at least you’re no worse off than your ancestors, who didn’t have it either.
You could live there without much money.
As for southern Mississippi, I’ve heard people criticize it — not unfairly — for its having become a gambling center.
But most people there were neither gamblers nor owners of gambling establishments. And even if they were, even the most diehard Bible-thumping anti-gambler would have to agree that the penalty for such sin should not be death.
(Besides, now that North Carolina has decided to adopt a lottery, we have no room to talk. There is zero difference between gambling houses on the waterfront in Biloxi and Pascagoula, and lottery tickets for sale in convenience stores in North Carolina. The customers are still being seduced into giving up something for nothing; and in North Carolina we have the distinction of being the stupidest people in America, since we already had proof that state lotteries don’t help much (if at all) and do as much harm as any other system of vice.)
Nobody deserves to have a hurricane destroy their property, and still less do they deserve to be killed for the crime of living near the coast.
So the "Christians" who gloated of the destruction of such "wicked places" should look up Matthew 7:1-5 and keep your malice to yourselves.
Natural disasters happen. We can prepare for them as best we can, but eventually there’ll be some twist that we didn’t anticipate, or some force greater than we imagined possible, and people will die and property will be destroyed and landscapes will be transformed.
We don’t have to blame anybody — not President Bush, not sinful people, and not God. God didn’t mean anything by Hurricane Katrina. This is a world where natural forces will organize and distribute disasters in a semi-chaotic way that does not care where people happen to be living.
I believe that what God cares about is not whether or not we are always safe in our houses. As I understand the scriptures, what God cares about is how we act when bad things happen.
Some people were brave and decent and kind and generous and I think that God is proud of his children who acted that way.
Some people looted, and some people exploited the disaster to hurt their political enemies, and some people used the disaster to condemn others and make themselves feel superior to the victims.
I believe that in the eyes of God, that is the real disaster — that so many of his children, when the storm had passed, turned out to be jackals after all.
And that damage has spread far and wide across the country — including places where Katrina did not go.
Copyright 2005 by Orson Scott Card.