June 23, 2019

Experiencing Hurricane Katrina

hurricane from space

This post was originally a series of 6 short posts that appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2005 right before and a few days after Hurricane Katrina. I reworked them into this post as we head into the 2019 hurricane season, mostly so I'd have a reminder of this experience and how it affected me. With that goal in mind, I refrained from doing any more editing than was necessary to correct some typos, eliminate redundant content linking the posts, and improve clarity. Finally, I couldn't resist adding a brief contemporary postscript.

The Arrival (written 8/29/2005)

Looking out my window, I can tell that this is going to be a bad one. The full force of the storm is not due to arrive here until this afternoon, but I'm already seeing fallen tree branches blowing down the street and trees bending in ways I haven't seen before. We have been told to plan on being without electricity for a while. There have been plenty of false alarms before, but something about this one feels different.

It is easy to see how our primitive ancestors believed that storms like this represented the wrath of various gods. Before meteorology, nobody understood what caused these storms. Their power is truly awesome to behold, and it makes sense that they would have been attributed to supernatural forces.

I was surprised by several articles in our local paper over the past few days containing quotes about the "wrath of god," "will of god," and similar attributions. This shouldn't surprise me here in Mississippi, but it does. I guess if I experience damage, it is the will of some sort of god. Victims must have done something to displease one of these gods. Those who are spared must be "right with the lord."

I don't wish storm damage on anyone. I hope that we all - atheists and Christians alike - make it through this storm with minimal hardship. If that doesn't happen, and by the look of what is going on outside my window it probably won't, I don't plan on condemning anyone. Rather, I hope I can find a way to be helpful.

The Aftermath (written 9/1/2005)

I live about 60 miles north of Gulfport, MS, which is fairly close to where the storm made landfall. Experiencing the heart of the storm was unlike anything had ever imagined. I didn't grow up in an area that had hurricanes or tornadoes. I hadn't been through anything like this previously. Still, the terror of the storm pales in comparison to its aftermath.

I spent the last 3 days and nights without electricity or running water in humid 90+ degree Mississippi heat. As bad as that was, the scariest thing was the complete lack of information. I could see the damage all around me, but I was fortunate to live inland. Our damage was sure to be trivial compared to what had happened on the coast. But no phones, no Internet, no electricity, no gas, impassable roads, etc. combined to create a total information black-out. How long would we be without electricity? A neighbor said he had heard it might be as long as 6 weeks. How were we supposed to get water once our supply of bottled water ran out? Should we get in our cars and try to make it out of the state? Most local radio stations were out, and the few broadcasts I could pick up from the Jackson area said little about what was happening in my area.

As it turned out, I was one of the lucky ones. Most of the trees around my house came down, destroying the fence around my yard and blocking my driveway, but my home was spared from major structural damage. As I write this, we still have no gas, phone service is spotty at best, and more than 70% of the state is still without power. Downed trees cover the roads, stoplights are inoperable, and I hear that the few stores that finally opened today have lines of 100-200 people and virtually nothing left. Like most sane people, I am staying home to do my part in conserving gas and not contributing to an even larger problem. I will have no choice but to venture out when my food runs out, but I should be able to make it a couple more days.

My power just came on, marking one of the happiest moments I can recall during the past few years. I screamed with delight and didn't even feel stupid afterward. The tap water still isn't safe to drink, but at least I can boil it now. Best of all, I have air conditioning again!

I turned on the TV, desperate to find out what was going on. While the cable is still out, preventing me from getting any local news, I was able to watch CNN briefly on satellite. After seeing their coverage, I am enraged at the total inaction of our local, state, and federal governments. Until today when a couple of the local radio stations started broadcasting, no official information was reaching us about where to go, what to do, or how to survive. The reason you keep seeing no sign of the National Guard, police, etc. in the CNN coverage of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is that they are not there. The commentator keeps asking about whether the aid is adequate, but the aid is nonexistent! I just heard that they finally set up a staging area in Baton Rouge. The storm hit on Monday. Today is Thursday, and no aid has reached the locations that need it most. I've heard that FEMA has been having meetings. Where the hell are they? People in Gulfport, Biloxi, and New Orleans have been homeless, without food or water, and in the 90+ degree sun since Monday. Where is the government? People are dying on the streets of New Orleans.

When Haley Barbour, the ultra-conservative governor of Mississippi, was interviewed on CNN today, he sounded defensive and was unwilling to acknowledge that Mississippi is not receiving sufficient aid from the federal government. I guess this aid must be invisible because we certainly haven't seen any trace of it. George W. Bush says his government is going to do everything possible to help. I hope he plans to start the aid while at least some of the displaced citizens are still alive. People in the area need food, water, and medical attention. They need it now. In a couple more days, it will be too late.

The Wait (written 9/2/2005)

I flipped on CNN this morning feeling optimistic. Surely the images broadcast yesterday would have produced a national outcry, and I would see evidence of a major National Guard and FEMA presence in New Orleans and Mississippi. Or not. Conditions in New Orleans look like they are getting worse, and there appears to be little trace of the aid the city was promised. I also note that the entire state of Mississippi is not even being covered. If that is what it takes to finally spark some aid for New Orleans, so be it.

I see that President Bush arrived in Biloxi a few minutes ago. Maybe he needs to make sure that conditions are really as bad as he’s been seeing on TV. After all, the “liberal media” could be making up the whole thing. Still insufficient food, water, and medical aid for New Orleans. Still no electricity, water, and gas for much of Mississippi. How many more people are going to die because they are waiting for the aid that was promised even before Katrina hit?

I want so much to help the people in New Orleans and those in my town who still have no electricity or running water, but I feel helpless to do anything. I have little food remaining, no phone service, and have been told that gas rationing is very limited. I can no longer receive any local radio stations, so I have no idea what is happening nearby. The last I heard, we were supposed to stay off the roads. If I venture out for food, I’ll end up using gas with no assurance of finding more. And so I wait.

Slow Progress (written 9/3/2005

Still no Internet access. When I called this morning, I was told that this whole area is down with no ETA for service to resume. Thus, I continue this Katrina log to be posted eventually.

It looks like conditions in New Orleans are finally starting to improve. At the same time, Mississippi residents on the coast are still not receiving sufficient aid. Relief efforts have been botched in a major way, and I sincerely hope that there will be accountability when everyone is safe. I am really not after punishment here (although it is warranted); I am after sweeping procedural and budgetary changes to ensure that our response to the next disaster is much more rapid.

In my area, there continues to be meager progress. Major roads have been cleared. Restoration of power continues slowly, and much of the town remains without power or water. None of us have safe drinking water yet (those of us lucky enough to have power must boil water for at least 2 minutes before it can be considered safe to use). Telephone and cellular service remain spotty but are showing marginal improvement. Food, water, and ice are scarce, and there is still no clear communication from local officials about where people are supposed to obtain these items. Information provided to local radio stations by private citizens is the only information we have, and it is not always reliable. Gas is slowly becoming easier to find, as more stations are starting to open. Lines are long, rationing continues, and hours of operation are limited. Postal service started to return yesterday although we are being told that mail is going to be delayed by at least a few days. The last garbage pick-up was a full week before Katrina hit.

Questions have been raised in the news media about the role of race and class in the recovery efforts (at least in New Orleans). I think these questions have considerable merit, and I hope that they will spark a national discussion once the immediate crisis is resolved. Of course, I know that this will not happen. Republican leaders are already moving to dismiss these claims and discredit their sources. When the immediate crisis is resolved, Americans will return to their lives and not give the situation a second thought. In fact, I suspect that many Americans are already getting tired of hearing about the Gulf Coast. Sure, there will be a spike in Red Cross donations. Maybe there will even be a pro forma investigation into the federal response to Katrina. But like 9/11, we will be encouraged to forget and move on as soon as possible.

I want to see a national discussion on poverty in America. I would like to see those of us who care about such things (many of whom are religious and many of whom are not) provide a voice on behalf of those who desperately need such a voice. We need to make it clear that whoever is elected to Congress or the Presidency have a plan for a "war on poverty" in America. This is more important that our futile anti-drug efforts. This is more urgent, less expensive, and tremendously easier to accomplish than our "war on terror." Let those images of suffering Americans in the streets of New Orleans be our catalyst.

Which Churches Are Open? (written 9/4/2005)

Today is Sunday, and it sounds like I’ll be able to return to work on Tuesday. Good thing because the boredom is killing me. I never realized how dependent I was on Internet access (especially when the gas shortage doesn’t permit any travel). I heard on the radio a few minutes ago that people had to wait for 6 hours in gas lines yesterday. Needless to say, I’m not going to drive until I have to. I was going to try to get to the one grocery store in town that has reopened today, but I’ll wait until Tuesday since it is along the route I take to work.

I spent most of yesterday clearing debris and will do the same today. It is exhausting work in the heat and humidity, but there isn't anything else to do. I’m starting to tire of CNN because I’m getting increasingly disgusted with how their anchors and interviewers are so clearly skewing the information they obtain by the manner in which they ask their questions. Didn’t the news used to at least feign objectivity? Wasn’t there a time back in the 70s or early 80s where news stations focused on reporting facts and were content for viewers to draw their own conclusions? Maybe my memory is inaccurate, but it seems much worse now. Even though I happen to agree with some parts of the story they are pushing (i.e., that the federal government severely botched the response to Katrina), I wish they would stick to the facts and not mix it with commentary. Sadly, it is quite clear that Fox News is not the only one with an agenda and a willingness to mold the facts to fit into such an agenda.

The local radio stations are relying on listeners calling-in to provide information (e.g., gas stations are open and actually have gas). This morning, being Sunday, the airwaves are filled with lists of which churches are open. Not surprisingly, they are giving this information higher priority than where to find food, water, ice, and gas. The DJs have been strongly encouraging people to attend church today to “thank god for what we still have.” They believe that those who just lost their homes, haven’t showered in 5 days, don’t know where they’ll get their next meal, and do not know if their family members are alive have a great deal for which to be thankful. After all, they are still alive – spared by some god.

A couple of the area churches are going to provide meals today, and I applaud them for doing so. I’m even willing to forgive their making the receipt of such meals contingent upon attendance at their religious services. This community is in dire need, and it is wonderful that these churches are helping out. I’m even willing to overlook how only 2-3 churches out of at least 100 in this area are providing meals. The FEMA presence continues to be inadequate in this area, and so every little bit helps.

A Political Revolution (written 9/5/2005)

I am hoping that this will be my final entry in this Katrina log, as I am planning to return to work tomorrow. I got word that a friend of mine who had to evacuate New Orleans is safely in Arkansas. He learned that the first floor of his home is completely underwater and has no idea when (or if) he will be able to return. Fortunately, he has family on the west coast he can stay with for a few months.

It sounds like President Bush is returning to Mississippi today. I guess he thinks that making another appearance will make amends for the unacceptably slow federal response. The finger-pointing is getting interesting, with the feds blaming state and local governments who are in turn blaming the feds. From the little information I was able to gather immediately before, during, and shortly after the storm, it seems clear that the primary failure was that of the feds. State governors requested federal aid before the storm hit. If the state and local officials should receive a portion of the blame (which they should), it is for their failure to get information to the people about what was happening.

Returning to the uninformative news coverage of the Katrina aftermath, why is it that reporters never repeat their original question when it goes unanswered? The critical question has been and continues to be why an adequate federal response took so long. In the many hours of CNN I have watched, I have not seen a federal official give a direct response to this question. I have also not seen a reporter repeat the question when it is not answered the first time. It doesn’t seem like we are any closer to understanding what went wrong, and this means that we shouldn’t expect an improved response to the next disaster.

I have not forgotten my previous rants about how this incident should place the spotlight on poverty in America. Democrats should be all over this, as it is painfully obvious that the policies of the Republican leadership exacerbate poverty. While this is not a new insight, the impact of Katrina could serve to highlight the growing numbers of Americans living in poverty. I want to see the Democrats propose a viable plan for ending poverty in America. This should be the party’s rallying platform, and Republican opposition should be shown for what it is – selfishness at the expense of others.

I’m not sure if it is coming through, but the events of Katrina have affected me deeply. I am still trying to understand what this all means, and I don’t have many answers yet. If I had to sum up the collective impact of what I have experienced so far, I would say that my perspective on the theism/atheism conflict has shifted to the periphery. I am realizing that many of the consequences of Republican policies are more important than their desire to “church up” America. Their ongoing consumerism, destruction of the environment, commitment to low taxes at the expense of maintaining our infrastructure, and neglect of poverty and the plight of the working poor in America all seem like greater evils.

Postscript (written today)

As I look back to Hurricane Katrina and the time that has passed since, I cannot help being disappointed. Little has changed in terms of the political will to address poverty or racism, and I am not convinced that the manner in which we respond to natural disasters has improved much. To be sure, there have been disasters since Katrina that were handled better. But there was also Flint and Puerto Rico. Moreover, appallingly little has been done to improve our ailing infrastructure. When the next Katrina strikes, we will not be able to say we didn't have ample opportunities to learn from the last one.