Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Some thoughts on the human tragedy of Katarina

My friend and colleague Gavin has posted his thoughts I think they contribute much to the conversation and argument that is on going over the government's responce to the plight of those stranded in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast.
My take here is a little different, though I think the argument of whether or not the Government did the right thing and was as prepared as it should have been is a necessary argument to have as we respond to the aftermath of Katrina. I also do believe we did see the failure of our Government to respond adequately to the disaster. Yet, I think that what happened to those stranded is not simply a sign of the failure of our Government but a failure of the American system as a whole, and that is the failure of "we the people."
Now I do not mean to say that the American people have been uncaring about the plight of those in New Orleans or the Gulf Coast certainly there are reports of people trying to gather up supplies, and the refuges from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are being taken in across the United States. However, our responce simply is reactionary.
We are not prepared as a people for large scale disaters whether perpetuated by nature or human beings. We the people live as if disaters cannot and will not happen to us in the United States. This is obviously false and yet even our reaction to this disaster indicates are denial: we don't like that reporters initialy called the survivors of huricane Katarina "refuges", because Americans are not refuges. I can't for the life of me understand why the term should be given to all displaced people except American displaced people who are seeking refuge from a disaster (whether of human orgin or a natural disaster). Second, over the past few weeks I have heard both from reporters and the refuges and radom people not directly affected by the disaster that they can't believe this is the US, communities whiped out, a flooded and desperate city, people brought immedieatly to the level of survival. All this leads me to say that we live in denial of the reality of the world. Disasters of all kinds happen, we should be ready for them and expect that American's from time to time (hopefully very rarely) will be refuges and displaced and that we should have plans in place for them.
Shortly after the disaster our friends and us sat around wondering how to respond. We felt like we couldn't simply sit up here in Chicago and watch and yet we felt powerless to do much, we didn't know who to contact nor what exactly we would or should do. What in fact would be the most useful and effective responce. I wish I had had the presence of mind in those conversations to say that we were asking these questions too late. It is already too late to respond to a disaster after it has happened. (granted if you are not prepared you still need to respond and we have mainly by giving money).
You see it seems to me that at all levels of our society we react to disasters we are not prepared to respond to disasters. It is obvious to me now that I should know my role in a disaster before the disaster strikes. I should know whether or not I will be one who stays (assuming I live where a disaster doesn't strike) and what I would be doing if I went to help. We should have some sense of how to organize should a disaster strike. The sort of every person for themsleves that occurs when a place is evacuated or the need to instantaneously help one another out without a plan. Not that planning will advert disasters or save everyone when a disaster hits, nor that things will go exactly as planned, but if there is a plan that could be implement accross institutions, and indviduals would know what groups could help and who to go to and what to do and who they could rely on.
Some of this does happen, or at least there are attempts to prepare us for disasters. The Red Cross has information on preparing you and your family and community for disasters, and one can certainly be a volunteer with the Red Cross or other organizations that will provide relief. Yet, as I have studied the Web pages of the Red Cross it seems focused largely on the individual and the networks the individual can provide. There is a definite sense of take care of your own and if we all take care of our own then we are prepared. This may be harsh and does not tell the whole story certainly, however it does explain much of what happened with the evacuations before and after Katrina hit. Those who had resources to get themselves and their loved ones out did so (though some stayed by choice) those who remained were not helped, many of those probably never looked at a Red Cross Web page or even had seen much information on disaster preperation, nor did they probably have resourses to stock up. Granted as I have said we as American tend to react with money and volunteer hours in the aftermath of something like this, but if we want to lessen the impact of such disasters we have to emerge from our individualistic focus and prepare to respond and not react to disasters. Church's and Christian organizations already have the institutions and resources to be able to do so, if we could begin to think creatively and proactively about how to relate to disaster relief organizations and Government relief agencies to push them beyond the expectation that in the immediate event of a disaster people take care of themselves and then Government and relief organzations come in to clean up the mess, and rely on the tug of the heart strings to get the money and volunteers to do so. Such an approach was not enough for Katrina, I suspect it never really was an adequate way to deal with disasters.

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