Thursday, September 01, 2005


In the moments immediately following the disaster that struck Southern California on January 17, 1994, my first thoughts centered on my personal safety. That’s okay. Self-preservation is the bottom rung on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

I knew instantly we’d had an earthquake because I’d been through them before. None had included the sound of glass breaking, eerie flashes of light, nor instant loss of power and phones.

So, when all the noise and the shaking stopped,and I stood in the doorframe waiting for the next big jolt, my thoughts turned to guessing where, logistically, I fit in. Was I directly over the epicenter? If so, good. I had experienced the worst of it, and I was fine.

But, what if the epicenter were ten miles away? Thirty miles away? Hundreds of miles away? If so, a lot of people were in deep, deep trouble.

Without electricity and phones, there was no way to know.

I longed to get in my car and drive to my parents, but what if the freeways had collapsed? There was no way to know.

In a relatively short time, the phones were restored in my neighborhood. My niece called from Maryland and held the phone up to the TV so I could hear what CNN was reporting. Only then was I able to gain some perspective. As awful as the news was, I knew we hadn’t suffered “The Big One.” But I also knew that what had happened didn’t just happen to my house, my block, or even my neighborhood. An entire metropolitan area had been effected.

My point is, as I watch the coverage of the horrific disaster on the Gulf Coast, and witness the overwhelming anger, disappointment and abandonment the victims feel, I have to remind myself they have no perspective. Without electrical power, phones—without modern communication—they have no concept of how vast the destruction is, nor how complex the relief effort must be. The people trapped in the convention center believe they’re at the epicenter; the thousands in the Superdome believe they are; and likewise the citizens of Gulfport and the people trapped in attics. All believe they've been forgotten. The only thing they know for sure is that they haven’t eaten, they have no water, and no one is coming to help.

I have less compassion for those who know what the score is but are focused on blame. As in, the police aren’t doing enough...the Mayor’s not doing enough...the President’s not doing enough...the government’s not doing enough.

Maybe we’ve become a culture who too readily expects to be taken care of. Maybe we’ve bred a generation of citizens accustomed to being bailed out. Maybe we’ve come to believe that government officials, like doctors, are gods who can fix anything.

They’re people, after all. People doing their best in a calamity of unprecedented proportions.


Christa said...

I wholeheartedly agree. I also know that one of the most marked steps in the grief process is anger, and it has to be directed somewhere. I'm not so concerned with questioning the governments efforts as I am in wondering why these coastal cities were not prepared themselves for this... those levies were built only for Cat 3's.... You'd think that some group of overacheivers would've put in place a few contingency plans for worst case scenario. AND, considering the city of New Orleans has been playing Russian Roulette with those levies... the blame has to somewhat fall on the citizens of these cities and their lack of a plan to help themselves. People in Denmark keep boats in their attics because they know, someday, another BIG ONE will hit. Cities in hurricane alley should take a cue.

MaryF said...

Randy, what a great post. That really does help explain a lot.

Carol B. said...

I heard in one news report (and one interview with the mayor backed this up) that Corp of Engineers has requested the levees be improved for several years and last request was for $27 mil. The Bush admin countered with $3.9 mil, and congress finally passed $5.7 mil. but because of budget cuts (caused in part by cost of war in Iraq) the corp delayed some contracts.
The account doesn't say, but I'm thinking $5.7 mil. would have been like putting a bandaid on a spewing jugular.

randy said...

And what if all the amount of money in the world doesn't guarantee 100% security? (I heard one engineer-type say that even the most expensive option they had wouldn't have ensured the integrity of the levees--and that it wasn't just the hurricane but the underground earthquake effect of the storm surge that caused the breech). So, where do you draw the line? Don't get me wrong...New Orleans is one of my favorite cities, and I firmly believe we need to rebuild.

Brooke said...

This is so very true--we are so attuned to having "modern conveniences" at our fingertips that we lose all sense of time and perspective when we lose them. It is almost impossible for us to grasp that it doesn't just take a snap of the fingers to make all these conveniences start working again.

I also completely agree with you on the victims perception becoming skewed...

But I am having a more difficult time understanding the screaming of obscenities at rescuers, the arson, the killing and the senseless looting (not looting for food or even clothing...). Of course, I am not there either. I am sitting at home with all my conveniences around me...