Politics & Policy

Escaping Catastrophe

The dispatches are full of accounts of varying accommodations to the hellfire in the Gulf, myriad people making myriad decisions, some staying in town, some leaving, some returning, some beginning to reconstruct, others razing what is left. It is ten million such decisions that will give us the vector of the post-Katrina Gulf Coast. That is the American way, and always it makes its way past grandiose collective plans, even as the war against poverty is fought and won by individuals learning a trade and finding a niche for their skills and ambition. When they have neither skill nor ambition, they have indigence and helplessness.

#ad#The public clamor tends to be over averting such catastrophes as Katrina, and here we have, at a complementary level, the problem of big-think solutions, even as we have such problems relating to an escape from poverty. The politicians and planners are talking about emergency plans to handle hypothetical attacks on any part of the United States. One excited commentator said on television a week ago that Manhattan was a fine example of a center that simply could not make plans for mass evacuations “because, you see, there are only a handful of bridges leading out of Manhattan.”

So what does one do when a situation arises that calls for escape routes for a million and a half people? The doctors know about extravasation, the ingenuity of capillaries that spring to life to carry the blood around the blocked impasse. There would be successful evacuees from a nuclear attack on Manhattan, but these would be comparable to escapees from a concentration camp. There are such, and they are testimonials to the ingenuity of man because they are finite examples of extraordinary luck and determination. They attract attention because they did the impossible. You cannot plan to transmute the presumptively impossible into the possible.

I knew a lady (one would not call her less than that) who was enormously resourceful and determined. She decided about thirty years ago that she should prepare for the travails she thought entirely reasonable in the war she anticipated with the Soviet Union. To protect herself, her husband, her five children, and her staff of four servants, she ordered canned food that would sustain them for two years. Water was a problem, but she decided to convert her swimming pool into tanks from which she could draw a gallon per person per day for five years.

You can’t covert such self-provisioning into national planning. We face the reality that there is no way to provide shelter for the majority against attacks on great scales. If there had been Katrina-like catastrophes not confined to a single location on the coastline of America, but running down the entire perimeter of the continent, from Eastport to Vancouver, we’d have been left substantially helpless. Note: “substantially” helpless–the cautionary word that provides for the individual exception, the man who escaped from Auschwitz, the sole survivor of a shipwreck. There will always be such, and every August we are given on television glimpses of survivors of the Hiroshima bomb, moving their quavering lips, but reminding us that survival is possible for individuals, not for whole populations. In the 1960s Governor Nelson Rockefeller preached the doctrine of private bomb shelters to guard against nuclear fallout. For a season it appeared the all-American thing to do. But after a while, the whole exercise seemed listless, and bomb shelters became not musketpieces of the determined American frontiersman, but museum pieces of ideologues’ fancies.

So the beginning of wisdom is to abandon hope of keeping America whole against such ferocities as are associated with Katrina-scale assaults on us. Encourage logical precautions, and look for available circumspections. But don’t expect manuals at hand, written by federal agents, which tell us how to defy gravity.

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