Katrina: It's an ill wind...

by Patrick Lewin

from Signs of the Times, No. 19 - Oct 2005

Patrick Lewin's love affair with America began in 1937, and since 1962 it has been his home from home. Most unattributed quotations are from major American newspapers.

'And it came to pass at the seventh time, that he said, Behold, there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man's hand.' On August 13 Tropical Depression No 10 formed briefly east of the Leeward Islands but failed to organize, said the US National Weather Service. On August 23 unstable moist air left over from No 10 turned into Tropical Depression No 12 near the Bahamas. Tropical storm watches were issued for Florida, but computer models showed it was still weak and disorganized and might curve out to sea.

On the 25th it had become Katrina, a Category 1 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale, forecast to be 'a dangerous hurricane in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico in about three days'. Picking up the warm loop current, like adding high-octane fuel to a fire, by the 28th it was Category 5 (the highest): 'a large hurricane that will affect a large area... Preparations should be rushed to completion.' Sustained wind speed: 160 mph. New Orleans was forecast to be in the bull's-eye. The levees that protected New Orleans were known to be able to withstand only a Category 3.

On Monday, its centre just to the east of New Orleans, Katrina slammed into coastal Louisiana and Mississippi as a Category 4 with sustained wind speed of 145 mph and a storm surge in some places up to 29 feet high. Waveland lost 'virtually its entire infrastructure and population' of 7,500, about two dozen surviving, and almost the entire city of Pass Christian, 'considered the little jewel of the coast', was destroyed, 'save for between 50 to 100 houses on the east side'. (An early report. The death toll remains conjectural.)

New Orleans was a disaster often predicted. Why was it allowed to happen? To protect 500+ miles of levees and floodwalls from a Category 4 or 5 would have meant replenishing the million-plus acres of coastal marshland lost to the sea since 1930, largely through human interference with nature, and cost upwards of $14bn. It seemed a large sum at the time. Washington had rolled the dice, said the general commanding the Army Corps of Engineers. 99.5% of the time the levees would hold. Unfortunately, 'we did not address the 0.5%.'

And lost. Risk assessment is a fact of life. New Orleans now expects to get the lion's share of what the President has announced will be 'one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen'. He gave no figures but others have put the cost at upwards of $200bn: double the inflation-adjusted cost of the Marshall Plan after World War II and as much as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. (If the experts are right who say the levees were not overtopped but broke through faulty design or construction, the Army Corps of Engineers and so the federal government would be liable for the cost of the flood-damage.)

The Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, began his 'Credo' piece in The Times by contrasting the awesome power of nature that unites us ('Hurricane Katrina produced as much energy in a single hour as the total consumption of America in a year'), with what can so quickly become a human tragedy, a Mississippi Lord of the Flies or Hobbes's state of nature, the 'war of every man against every man' in which life is 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short'.

Much of New Orleans under water recalled other cities in myth and history: Thera and Atlantis, Ur and Noah's flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, reputedly now under the Dead Sea, Pompeii, Lisbon in 1755, Galveston in 1900, San Francisco in 1906 - and still today at the mercy of the San Andreas Fault. All dwarfed by T'ang-shan (1976 and subsequent earthquakes) when an estimated 700,000 to 1,500,000 people died. China's response? The same as Japan's. 'All new buildings were designed to be highly earthquake-resistant.' Wind and water in the worst cyclone in recorded history killed 300,000 to 500,000 in 1970. How many in the West remember where? In what is now Bangladesh.

The immediate parallels were the Twin Towers during 9/11 and last December's tsunami, to those at a distance and without fears for family or friends compulsive viewing, half-stunned, knowing it was real though it was almost past believing.

The response of the American public was everything to be expected of a generous-hearted people. Charities estimated that gifts and pledges of $400m were received within the first five days. In this the nation pulled together, as after 9/11. Ever since life began on this planet some four billion years ago, the instinct for survival has meant that in time cooperation has become at least as important as competition.

The Onion, a satirical paper, ran a headline: 'God outdoes terrorists yet again'. As the days passed, there was need of light relief, and the earnest supplied it. The bulletin board of Pat Robertson's evangelical Christian Broadcasting Network and 700 Club invited contributions to a debate on whether God allowed such destructive storms. 'Gingerbread 1951' wrestled with the problem: 'Yes He does! God is sovereign - everything is under His control. Satan is just God's glorified errand boy, who gets much acclaim for things he does not deserve credit for... Some people will respond that satan did this - well, did he? If he did, it could not have been without God's approval, for you see satan has to approach the throne of God to ask permission to do these things. So yeah, God does allow storms of destruction.'

The web blog, andrewsullivan.com - well worth visiting: he himself is a British-born conservative, or classical liberal, whose thoughtful articles on Katrina were published in the Sunday Times - gives examples of many points of view, among them these:

'Loony Right Watch: "Katrina is a consequence of the destruction of [Gaza's] Gush Katif [slate of Jewish communities] with America's urging and encouragement. The U.S. should have discouraged Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from implementing the Gaza evacuation rather than pushing for it and pressuring Israel into concessions." - Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Lewin, executive director of the Rabbinic Congress for Peace, in the crack-pot, far right magazine, WorldNetDaily.'

'Move Over, Falwell: "Although the loss of lives is deeply saddening, this act of God destroyed a wicked city. From 'Girls Gone Wild' to 'Southern Decadence', New Orleans was a city that had its doors wide open to the public celebration of sin. May it never be the same. Let us pray for those ravaged by this disaster. However, we must not forget that the citizens of New Orleans tolerated and welcomed the wickedness in their city for so long," - Michael Marcavage, in a statement from the evangelical Christian group, "Repent America".'

In any contest for the title 'Wickedest City in America', New Orleans, the Big Easy, the City That Care Forgot, for all its undeniable charm, would certainly be a contender. John Barry, in his Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, describes how fear stripped the veneer of southern gentility from the whites. Blacks were rounded up to work on strengthening the levees under armed guard. Then, in a panic measure, fearing a backup, the civic authorities deliberately breached a levee downstream, flooding many of the homes of the less well-off, and reneged on their promise of compensation. Many blacks left the south and settled permanently in northern cities. Today, 27.9% below the poverty line and still 67% black (76% in the flooded areas), it has one of the highest murder rates in America, while Mississippi and Louisiana were ranked first and third last year in the number of federal public-corruption convictions per capita. A former congressman claimed half Louisiana was under water and the other half under indictment.

After Katrina came the failure of the authorities at all levels: New Orleans's Mayor Nagin, Louisiana's Governor Blanco, Chertoff and Brown (of Homeland Security and FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency), Bush's mentor Karl Rove, Rumsfeld, Cheney and the White House. Many have acknowledged that the security and preparedness of every city and facility in America has been called in question. (The last is surely true of most countries - Singapore apart perhaps, and the Netherlands' sea defences. Will Prescott bin his proposals to build on our flood plains?)

How are the mighty fallen! Things are very different four years on from 9/11. President Bush's ratings were slipping when 9/11 happened. After giving a passable impression of being a rabbit caught in the headlights, he visited Ground Zero with Rudi Giuliani and caught the mood of the moment. The nation looked for a leader and he became one, giving voice to their thirst for revenge. Colin Powell was isolated within the Administration, the general who said or quoted: 'The best way to deal with your enemies is to make them your friends.'

Now this from conservative commentator David Brooks: 'Americans have had to acknowledge dark realities that it is not in our nature to readily acknowledge: the thin veneer of civilization, the elemental violence in human nature, the lurking ferocity of the environment, the limitations on what we can plan and know, the cumbersome reactions of bureaucracies, the uncertain progress good makes over evil... In case after case there has been a failure of administration, of sheer competence. Hence, polls show a widespread feeling the country is headed in the wrong direction.'

From Sullivan: 'Perhaps the reason people feel more than simple frustration with Bush - the reason it amounts to anger - is not "Bush-hatred" (although that irrationality exists), but this president's squandering of so much of what is best about America and his pandering to so much that is worst. I don't fully understand it. I don't think it's malevolence. I think it's a mixture of arrogance and incompetence. But the damage it is doing to some of the core meaning of America - that this is a country that rescues people who are in dire straits, and never, ever abuses prisoners in its military custody - is deeply distressing. And it will take time to restore that kind of reputation and, yes, honor.'

Barbara Bush didn't help her son's cause by having her Marie Antoinette moment. After touring the Houston Astrodome complex with him, which had become a relocation centre for evacuees, she told a radio programme: 'What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality... And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.'

What biological evolution cannot do is select for altruism outside a narrow group. As Reinhold Niebuhr put it: 'the chief source of man's inhumanity to man seems to be the tribal limits of his sense of obligation to other men.' Cultural or social evolution can extend fellow-feeling but tribal, party, ideological, and national commitments limit it. The silver lining is that sober Republican voters may now break free from the thrall of what for some has been a lifetime of party loyalty and help return American government to mainstream common ground.

Whether or not the heavens declare the glory of God, cosmology is a grand aid to gaining perspective. In a pre-scientific age, Amos could say without fear of contradiction: 'Does evil befall a city, unless the Lord has done it?' But on the cosmic scale Katrina was a microscopic ripple. On September 4th the NASA Swift satellite and a number of ground-based telescopes picked up a gamma ray burst from a supernova explosion 13 billion years ago, when a massive star collapsed and gave birth to a new black hole. Only one quasar (a black hole that may contain the mass of billions of stars) has so far been discovered even closer to the birth of our universe, now thought to have occurred 13.7 billion years ago, and itself quite possibly one of an incalculable number of others in an infinite multiverse. Tell that to the poet who had the Almighty answer Job out of the whirlwind, asking him where he was when he laid the foundation of the earth and created the hippopotamus and crocodile.

The Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, in Our Final Century: A Scientist's Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind's Future in This Century - On Earth and Beyond, 2003, offers an illuminating survey of what may become of us if we and those we elect continue to behave as if we live in the 'Big Easy' and leave our future to fate. 'What happens here on Earth, in this century, could conceivably make the difference between a near eternity filled with ever more complex and subtle forms of life and one filled with nothing but base matter.'

'The eternal silence of these infinite spaces' may have terrified Pascal, but for many thoughtful people the realization of how short a time we have been here and the vastness of the cosmos has been a liberating experience. It is the gods that no longer terrify us. They were at best human distortions of reality, at worst childish ego-projections, what we would do and be if we were God. Obliterating wicked cities would be like killing flies or pulling their wings off.

As these words are being penned, Category 5 Rita is barrelling down with New Orleans to the east side of the storm, where the most powerful winds are. 'This,' said a meteorologist in Texas, 'is going to be one very nasty, mean hurricane when it strikes land.' Governor Blanco said: 'We are praying that the hurricane dissipates, that it weakens.' Are 'mean' and 'praying' to be taken no more literally than 'penned'? They may be praying right now but over two million are reported to be fleeing north. Or sweltering in 100-degree heat waiting for fuel.

In the Elijah narrative God was not in the earthquake, wind, or fire. There is no place in modern science for a supernatural impulse occasionally commanding wind and wave. Nor is there good reason to suppose the still small voice is supernatural. Conscience has to be educated. A cannibal might feel guilty if he didn't eat the missionary.

The pain of loss is the price we pay for love. Only in a world with a degree of freedom in it can there be love and family life, laughter, surprise, anticipation, creativity, the joy of learning and discovery, achievement, fulfilment, all that makes life worth living. And the price for that is heavy. All the major world religions have to come to terms with natural catastrophe, human evil, injustice, suffering and death. It would be intolerable, the work of Malevolence, were this world the deliberate creation of a Being that could have given the fruits of freedom without the downside, and refused. Once the all-powerful oriental monarch image has been discarded, the distinctive contribution of Christianity will be more fully realized: that a human being unjustly condemned and dying an agonizing death can be at the same time a revelation of the Eternal, thorn-crowned, reigning from the tree with outstretched arms, 'before ever the wood was raised on Calvary', armed only with what Plato had discerned, the persuasive power of love.

Patrick Lewin was convenor and chair of a philosophical society.