Reflections on Hurricane Katrina

In the aftermath of the devastation and suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina, we have seen an avalanche of finger-pointing as to whom to blame -- especially for the unnecessary deaths due to governmental bungling (both local, state, and federal) and the failure to provide the means of evacuating people from the city of New Orleans in time. But just as predictably, we have also seen a spate of theological opinionizing, particularly of the sort that would see God’s wrath or justice at work, apparently punishing the city of New Orleans for its fabled decadence and its people for their easy-going and sinful ways. However, if moral judgments are to be leveled regarding the conditions of life there, one might wonder if a good part of the blame shouldn’t be leveled against America in general or in particular on its economic system. As one acquaintance of mine who had been on assignment in India said, after visiting New Orleans long before the hurricane, that the city reminded him of Calcutta with its yawning gap between the relatively rich and privileged and the throng of poor. That gap was exposed for all the world to see on TV when the vast majority of whites managed to flee the city in their cars, while a half-million of those, mostly black, too poor to own a car, were left to run (or swim) for their lives, leaving it mostly to the Coast Guard to try to rescue those who were left behind. The perpetual problem of poverty ("The poor you shall always have with you", Jesus predicted) aside, the question remains: what now must be done? Should or to what extent should New Orleans be rebuilt? For many, especially those born there, this is an unthinkable question. Yet the world is filled with the sites of ancient cities which for one reason or another were abandoned as no longer inhabitable. Surely, slowing sinking well below sea-level is one of them! Still, the optimist will object. Why not just keep building the levees higher? -- which is exactly what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been asking to do for the past forty years. Yet, as scientists have been pointing out for years, the dangerous situation that has been building up there for decades has been largely the result of the continued efforts of that same arm of government to artificially confine the Mississippi River within its channels and prevent the flooding that built up the wetlands that once helped protect the original city from storm surges from the sea. So while higher levees could undoubtedly prolong the city’s survival for a time, in the long run, in view of the tendency of river delta land to sink, coupled with the increased storm activity and sea levels occurring with global warming, the short-term solution looks more and more like a long-term formula for even greater disasters to come. If the old adage that "God helps those who help themselves" has any truth to it, then common sense would seem to suggest that while the oldest parts of old New Orleans -- which are actually still a bit above sea level -- might be preserved, the replacement for the rest should be built further inland on higher ground. And while this new New Orleans might not turn out to be exactly a "New Jerusalem", it could reflect -- again if we use common sense -- a greater concern for the welfare of the urban poor.

R W Kropf 9/15/05 Katrina.doc 05-09-15.html