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Goodnight, America, How Are You? - On The Aftermath of The Flood of New Orleans

Nighttime on The City of New Orleans,
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee.
Halfway home, we'll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness
Rolling down to the sea.
And all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain't heard the news.
The conductor sings his song again,
The passengers will please refrain
This train's got the disappearing railroad blues.
–Steve Goodman,
“The City of New Orleans”

Unbelievable. Incomprehensible. Disheartening. Surreal. As you watch the news reports of the devastation that resulted from Hurricane Katrina, words cannot adequately describe the transformation that has taken place on the coastal areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. But what is particularly heart wrenching and sobering is the loss of New Orleans, and the surrounding metropolitan area. One million and a half people rendered homeless, and untold numbers of bodies floating in a sickening soup of debris, chemical waste, and sewage. When the levees were breached and the waters of the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain began pouring in, the unthinkable became reality.

Most of New Orleans’ citizens evacuated ahead of the storm, but the 100,000 people who remained behind were faced with what can only be described as an apocalyptic calamity. No one was prepared when the waters rushed in. With most of the city under ten to twenty feet of water, New Orleans has ceased to function. No water to drink, bathe or flush. No electricity for lights, cooking, electronics or air conditioning. No job to go to. No means of transportation. Without infrastructure or any semblance of order, the city has begun to rapidly deteriorate into a state of anarchy. The French Quarter has been taken over by mob-crazed looters who are not only cleaning out stores of food and drink items, but just about anything they can get their hands on. TV’s, jewelry, and furniture are hauled out of stores, and police seem limited as to what their response should be. It has been reported that the National Guard is on their way to help secure the city, but it seems to me that this should have been put into place days ago. By the time the cavalry finally does arrive, it may be too late. In the absence of shelter and food, people are beginning to gather in a desperate frenzy of hopelessness, and are beginning to turn on each other. Let someone see that you have a loaf of bread, and you may be killed for it.

The sight of people emerging from the water as they join the hundreds of people already gathered on the overpasses with the last of whatever possessions they have managed to salvage, burn indelibly into our memory--images that will never be forgotten. A family huddles against a mattress. All they have left that they can call their own is a small lamp table, a couple of folding chairs and a pile of wet clothes. In the arms of the mother is a young child that is in obvious distress from hunger and dehydration. She and her son are among the many who need immediate help but must wait until someone is able to assist them. So many, many people in need, and yet they must wait and hope that someone will get to them in time. For the unfortunate, the sick and elderly, hope becomes eternal as their bodies are left where they died. Only a few have been shown any dignity by someone who has shown one last act of human kindness by covering them with a blanket, a black plastic trash bag or whatever else may have been available.

In our country, I do not recall any recent event where we have had such a complete disaster that rendered a large population of people into refugees. But refugees are what the citizens of New Orleans have become. 25,000 people bused to the Astrodome in Houston, TX, and another 20,000 are to be bused to San Antonio. Others have been taken in by Baton Rouge and other cities. City officials of New Orleans estimate it may take four to six months to get the city back up and running. Even if such optimism proves to be true, and the city comes back to life within that time, what are the million and a half people who have been displaced supposed to do in the meantime? Is it realistic to expect that you can have 25,000 people living in the Astrodome for that amount of time? And what happens if New Orleans cannot be reclaimed? That we would have lost an entire metropolitan area because of the damage wrought by a hurricane is unimaginable, but each day that goes by, and more is learned about how thorough and complete the damage is, it would seem that nature indeed is the final arbiter, and that it is unlikely New Orleans will ever be revived.

As a nation, I wonder just what our response should be? How shall we help the people and families not just of New Orleans, but also of all the communities that have been destroyed by the storm? How do we absorb the millions, who have been displaced by the destruction and loss of their homes and livelihood? It is incumbent upon all of us, then, to consider what small contribution we might make to help those who are in need. Make a donation to the Red Cross, the United Way, or if you live in or close by to any of the cities that have taken in people, volunteer your services to help in any way that you can.

By S. L. Cunningham