Sunday, September 04, 2005

Object Lessons

It's been hard for me to care about my writing or triathlon stuff this past week. Ever since I realized the full enormity of what was about to happen to New Orleans and the rest of the Southern Gulf Coast, I've been focused on little else. I've missed some workouts, made some others, substituted for the missed workouts in whatever way I could when it was possible. This wasn't because I particularly care about training for anything any more (I'm putting all paid events on standby for now) but because I've needed the mental break and stress relief of physical activity.

Already I think I could write a book about what I'm learning from watching this disaster play out. I'm still mentally processing things, with more insight likely to come after I volunteer this weekend at one of our shelters.

But for now, here are a few things that have struck me about the events of this week.

1. Witnessing History. Did any of us think we'd see a major U.S. city more or less wiped off the map, flooded beyond recognition, full of death, privation, looting and despair? Did any of us ever really expect to see such scenes in our lifetime? People starving in squalor in a famous sports arena, waiting in filth and desperation in a convention center and on freeway overpasses. An entire metropolitan area of 1.3 million people either fled, evacuated out afterwards or dead. All this in a week. All this in America. A major city, a cultural icon… gone. Survivors fanning out all across the American South. If they had made a movie about it, people would've happily bought their tickets, munched their popcorn while staring at the screen in fascination, but never really believed such a think could happen here.

Take a minute and imagine your city (or the nearest large city, if you're in a small town) gone. Can you wrap your brain around it? It doesn't seem real, does it? Just a sick fantasy, a twisted mental exercise. But it did happen. It's real and it's serious.

2. Economics. How much time has any of us spent researching or even just pondering the economic significance of our offshore oil facilities, the Port of New Orleans, the nearby ports that handle petroleum shipments and the entire traffic of goods up and down the Mississippi River? We didn't simply lose the birthplace of jazz and the home of the most raucous Mardis Gras party in North America, we took an economic hit whose effects will ripple through our economy for months, if not years.

Will the places that have taken all the evacuees be able to hold up under the economic strain? That remains to be seen. Houston has grown by over 100,000 people in less than a week. Think about that for a minute. Can your city or town absorb that many people into its economy on such short notice? Can Houston's?

At least 25,000 of the people now in Houston were poor even before Katrina struck. Of the other 75,000 or more, most were middle class but now their jobs are gone. Can we find work for that many people? Can we give food and aid to so many for the months it will take for them to get on their feet, either here, in their former home or in some other city? It remains to be seen. In the short term, it is staggering to witness the generosity of Houston and other areas that have absorbed New Orleans' metropolitan population of 1.3 million, as well as thousands of former residents of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We are indeed a rich nation that we can give so much, so quickly, with so little pain. But what will the long term hold for the people who lost everything and for the people who are trying to help them rebuild?

3. Generosity. I have never seen such an outpouring of generosity among my fellow citizens. Everywhere I look people are giving time, money, food and clothing to the victims of this disaster. As early as Wednesday, we had two people in my building collecting for area shelters. By the end of the week you could donate at nearly every grocery store, school, office, pet supply store and professional sporting event. There were volunteer opportunities in almost every corner of the Houston metropolitan area. And if you couldn't donate your time, there were dropoff points for goods-- just pull up, unload and be on your way. By the weekend, lemonade stands had sprung up around the city as even the children tried to do their part to raise funds for the needy.

People can say what they will about Texans in general and Houstonians in particular, but let no one ever say we aren't quick to open our hearts and wallets to those in need.

4. Lessons Learned. This is the most important bit.

Everyone lives in danger of some sort of natural or man-made disaster occurring in their area. When was the last time you looked around and asked yourself if you're prepared?

If you had to evacuate, do you know where you would go, what you would take, how you would get there? And if for some reason your first plan wasn't feasible, do you have another plan?

And what have you done to supply yourself, if sheltering in place is your best plan?

FEMA says you need to have on hand at least 72 hours worth of food, water, medications and other essentials, because 72 hours is the earliest they can get to you after disaster strikes. Katrina has shown us that 72 hours may overly optimistic.

If that doesn't give you some serious food for thought, you haven't been paying attention to the news this week.

If money is tight, it can seem daunting to stock up on supplies to last a week or more. But it's not as hard as it seems. Just drop a few extra things in your shopping cart each week and you'll be surprised at how quickly your little stash builds. Buy batteries. Hand sanitizer. Baby wipes so you can take sponge baths. Toilet paper. Canned goods. Crackers. Clif Bars. Vitamins. Buy one of those pitchers that filters and purifies water. Then get online or go to a camping equipment store and buy water purification tablets. If you're in the south, buy mosquito netting and a battery-operated fan. If you're in the north, you may want a few extra blankets. Buy slowly and methodically and in a year you'll be pleasantly surprised at how prepared you are. Don't wait until disaster is immenent and the stores are empty!

Never let anyone try to tell you you're some kind of survivalist kook just because you want to be able to care for yourself and your loved ones if something goes horribly wrong. Sometimes the very best thing you can do for victims of a crisis is not be among the needy. So buy an extra can of soup when you're at the store tomorrow. And when you go next week, buy another.

Don't rely one anyone but yourself to save you and your loved ones.

Remember New Orleans.


Wil said...

Wow, so many good points! I have to say that I never thought about the economics of it all - so overwhelming to see everything else, it's easy to forget that there are all these dominos still falling. You really did a good job of putting all of that in perspective.

I'm going to the grocery store tomorrow, and will be definitely thinking of your post ;)

Leslie said...

What an insightful, thought-provoking post. I, too, have thought of little else and have shed so many tears daily when I sit to quietly watch it all continue to unfold. It's mind-boggling.

Finally out of the seemingly impenetrable darkness comes some light...some much-needed light...with the stories of courage, heroics and selflessness.

And, yes, we must dig deep and give.