This is the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The storm made its second landfall on August 29. I was among the volunteers who served in response, 9/8-22/05, providing disaster mental health services.
I wrote a story about the experience, published in the July 2007 issue of “Counseling Today,” the magazine of the American Counseling Association. The text is too long to repeat here, but I will give you a few of my favorite lines:
“A disaster is an awful thing, but not everything that happens because of a disaster is awful. Yes, there is death, destruction, agony, terror, cruelty, humiliation and disabling loss. But there is also hilarity and joy, beauty, generosity, honesty, courage, strength and faith. Where evil increases, grace also increases.”
“A disaster is no place for whiners, and there is no time for subtlety or passivity. If something failed five minutes ago, then you are five minutes too long in worrying about it.”
“Responding to Katrina was a hike to Walden. I spent my days deliberately, learned some of what life has to teach and lived a Spartan existence. Distractions and false dichotomies vanished, leaving only moments and choices.”
Since Katrina, a variety of things have become clear, individually and globally.
- You can decide how you react to anything. This is an incredible power, to choose one thought or act over another.
- Neighbors cross cultural and economic lines to help neighbors after a disaster. They do not raid each others’ homes or attack each other without cause.
- Taking things from a store without power or staff, when there is no way to pay for what you need, is not looting. It’s survival.
- The survivors of Katrina did not try to shoot down helicopters. As Sheri Fink wrote in “5 Days at Memorial,” for all of the thousands of hours of rescue flights by the Coast Guard, National Guard, State Police, and others, there was not a single report of a bullet hole in any aircraft.
- The stories of gunfire are now taken, in most circles, as an attempt to signal or summon help. Claiming that the survivors tried to shoot down rescue flights makes no sense at all, unless the point is to paint the survivors – mostly poor and mostly persons of color – as savages.
- Savagery typically does not exist after a disaster. The chief of New Orleans police was on television, reporting horrible stories about events in the Superdome, even though no one could get in or out, even though there was no cell phone service, even though he couldn’t possibly know. When the National Guard finally arrived to relieve the Superdome, the guard brought hundreds of body bags. What was the death toll? Again, per Fink, it was 3: one suicide, one drug overdose, one elderly person. Those lives mattered, of course, but it was not the massacre or descent into base anarchy that the media reported.
- Where did the media get those lies? There is the phenomenon of “elite panic” when those with money and power see the suspension of the normal social order and fear for their place at the top. They employ everything from propaganda to physical violence to remain in control.
- The social order eventually and quickly reasserts itself. Law returns. There are arrests, suits, and trials.
- Many of the supervisors on Katrina were front-line service providers in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, almost exactly four years earlier. The Red Cross was deluged with volunteers for Katrina and many fell through the cracks when they returned home. That is not to lament the lack of recent disasters, but to illustrate the need for a ready, trained, experienced corps of disaster relief professionals.
- Disaster relief is a skill that can be taught but also an attitude that cannot be taught. You either belong or you don’t.