David Langness Reports on New Orleans
My dear friend David Langness, who has long experience in the field of humanitarian relief work, reports:
Back from a difficult, gruesome and yet exhilarating week in New Orleans, so here’s the report:
Of all the disasters I’ve delivered medical relief to, Katrina is easily the most widespread and devastating. Certainly it qualifies as the largest disaster in the United States in memory. But when you compare it to the recent Iranian earthquake in Bam (30,000 dead) or the tsunami (probably 200,000 dead) it pales by comparison. Despite early, wild estimates of more than 10,000 dead, the death toll for Hurricane Katrina will most likely not exceed 2,000.
On the other hand, Katrina displaced probably a million people; 144 square miles of New Orleans (the city is about 200 square miles total) are under a toxic brew of foul water, sewage, oil, gas, lead, PCBs, carcasses both human and animal, etc. I saw thousands upon thousands of poor people set adrift; America’s most vibrant city stilled and stinking; alligators feasting on the dead; flooded, evacuated hospitals; the complete destruction of hundreds of thousands of homes. The television and newspaper photos are nowhere near sufficient to convey the scope and magnitude of the destruction — it is as if you were hovering above downtown Los Angeles looking west and everything within your field of vision were flooded all the way to the beach.
Flying over the area in helicopters all week gave me some remarkable vistas – big 30-foot fishing boats a mile inland, lodged in treetops; a hospital two blocks from the beach in Biloxi, which used to be surrounded by stores, homes and restaurants, standing alone as if a hospital-sparing neutron bomb had gone off, surrounded by rubble; whole forests snapped off; long lines of evacuees waiting in vain for FEMA or someone to come and get them; airports full of relief supplies but thousands going hungry; parish politicians commandeering hospitals for their own purposes and kicking out the patients; a roan horse running free on an island created by the flood; the stars over New Orleans at night shining more brightly than they have for a century.
The older, wiser part of New Orleans is largely untouched — the Garden District, the French Quarter, downtown. These sections of the city were built in the 1600s and 1700s, on higher ground and by wiser people, apparently. I do not know how they will save the rest of New Orleans. The whole inundated bowl of New Orleans seems beyond repair; the homes are history; the toxics in the floodwaters will be difficult if not impossible to abate; the population has left and will not have anything to return to for a long, long time.
In many areas the cops departed and companies brought in heavily-armed security mercenaries from DynCorp, just back from protecting Hamid Karzai. The whole area seemed lousy with network producers burnt out from all the PTSD and trauma they had seen. And as in all disasters, doctors and nurses gave literally everything they had to save people. The DynCorp guys, all ex-Delta Force soldiers, were kind enough to rescue frightened little dogs from the rubble . . . I noticed that erstwhile snipers wisely refrained from sniping when the ex-Delta Force guys in black tacticals showed up. The media seemed to have a newly reconstituted spine, focusing on the failures of the administration to send help, come back from vacation, fix levees, do any damn thing right. The doctors and nurses ignored their destroyed homes and missing relatives to care for the sick and injured, and showed me a new level of selfless, soul-satisfying sacrifice. Like all disasters, you see the worst and feel great wonder and astonishment at the best in humanity.
Here’s one example from New Orleans: a massive hospital evacuation of more than 500 very ill patients and a few thousand staff and family, with little or no government help. The staff and the patients waited for four days as the waters rose for the repeatedly-promised official evacuation; but it never came. Finally, with no power, medicine, food, water or communication, they decided to hire private helicopters and got everyone out despite darkness, sniper’s bullets, massive explosions, and the extreme difficulties of transporting the very sick, only possible because people pulled together in unity and risked everything.
You tend, when you see disasters of this scale, to reflect on the existence and intentions of a Creator. For me, the subject of these disasters and any Divine intentions is a fascinating one. I tend to believe that these are the times She may be re-thinking the whole free-will deal.
And that’s because these disasters seem mostly self-inflicted, in some larger sense. I noticed that the New York Times and many other media outlets reported several human causes with Katrina’s effects: the building on and subsequent erosion of the Mississippi Delta’s natural hurricane buffer the barrier islands; the increasing temperatures of the Gulf waters and the hotter water’s very significant contribution to more and more powerful hurricanes; the repeated Federal failure to provide budget funds for levee reinforcement that everyone knew we would eventually need; the gradual sinking of New Orleans as the energy industry pumps out more water and oil and natural gas from underneath the city; the federal government’s finally giving in to developers of the outlying areas in the Delta by underwriting insurance policies for new building, which private companies had previously declined to provide; and of course the general, overall greed and stupidity of continuing to build a major coastal city below sea level without requiring elevated foundations and a flood-ready infrastructure.
This leads me to wonder whether all disasters are man-made.
Yes, I know that’s a stretch. But we have come to the point where we know where and where not to site and situate human habitation; and how to build it so that it withstands wind, water, fire and earthquake. We know which acts of commerce and agriculture create risk from weather, and increasingly understand how we make our own weather. We know that we can protect people by doing certain basic things to keep them safe. In other words, we know how to adequately warn and prepare for most “natural” disasters. Natural disasters used to be called Acts of God, didn’t they? Now I think we can begin calling them something else entirely.’