Politics & Policy

Fighting Despair

After Katrina.

It was about a week before the news of the Battle of New Orleans reached Washington. News traveled by boat, New Orleans-Miami-Washington. One-hundred 90 years later the news traveled with the speed of light, though the final news is not yet known. There is talk of abandoning New Orleans, for which 2,000 Britishers fell, dead or wounded, in 1815, killing 13 and wounding 39 of the Americans led by General Andrew Jackson. Four days after Hurricane Katrina hit, there was talk of desperation. What do you do?

That question draws on the ingenuity of man. It is not infinite, but it is copious. There are men and women alive at this moment who had scant chances to be alive on Wednesday. Late on Thursday, one television broadcaster pictured raw hopelessness. What am I supposed to do? One could hear the words spoken.

Certain things couldn’t be done, though the man who spoke his desperation seemed able-bodied. What do you do when there is no assurance of even one day’s food or water or shelter? Catching the bus to Houston was on Thursday a magic chariot to heaven. The Astrodome in Houston is at this moment heaven on earth, but the magic chariot is as elusive as magical conveyances properly are. The man with the television camera could not begin to answer the question when might a bus materialize. Subsequent questions brought other starknesses to mind: What, beyond food and toilets and a roof above, would the Houston Astrodome bring? Knowledge of the whereabouts of other members of the family?

But Coast Guard agents were reporting that their cell phones weren’t working. Cell phones depend on antennas that spring up from the ground, great pylons measuring several hundred feet. These are gone. The Coast Guardsman could talk only to someone with a receiver standing within view, and nobody was undertaking to find anyone–man, woman, or child–simply because a loved one was desperate to know where, or whether, that person existed.

So they tuck in their thoughts, reduce them to a mere vision–of Houston. To ask what then, what after Houston, would yesterday have courted true desperation.

Ayn Rand wrote an imaginative novel based on a society suddenly finding its members at liberty to seek out individual gratifications. From that fable, her anthem was born. The relevant factor in the Gulf catastrophe is indeed the individual’s capacity to reject despair and to cope, however aimlessly, with what is brought on, the bus that will at some point be there, the bean soup that will quiet the hunger, and soon, someone’s hand, to share, and mitigate the loneliness.

Individuals, seeking some kind of relief, some kind of future. The other American community, away from the Gulf, seeks, struggles with another frustration seeking means to soothe the afflicted. There is no substitute for going out from one’s door with hot soup and blankets, rushing to the corner, and bringing corporal relief there and then to someone who is suffering. The great god of anonymity denies us such satisfaction.

Never mind. We hear from the president himself that there is a way to help. It is to send cash. The usual secular intermediaries were instantly there. The Red Cross will accept donations and transmute them into food and medicine. So will branches of one’s church. What is there to be purchased with such money? Nobody in the field thinks to wonder how the bus company is going to be paid, or who will be billed by the Astrodome for food and water and bandages. Government spokesmen were quick to report that there would be no interruption in paychecks to those who were working for the government. What about paychecks for those who worked for hotels and casinos? Hotels and casinos which are not only defaulting on paychecks, but looking down into the rubble at what used to be a hotel and a casino. Who is going to exnihilate new hotels and new casinos?

There are some friendly nations, around the globe. What can they do for the stricken Gulf? America doesn’t need food. What we need is construction units. We have a lot of these of our own, all-American. But if the surveyor commands that we build 450,000 houses, the question has got to be asked: How? By whom?

And where?

All of us have a personal involvement, if we scratch hard enough. My mother was born in New Orleans and we tracked down a first cousin, who reports the good news that at Metairie, Louisiana, water was at four feet, not 20 feet, as feared, though the house at Pass Christian, Mississippi, is gone. “It was right on the beach.”

It is no wonder that they talk now in terms of months and even years. All that can be faced on Day Four is: Keeping American women, children, and men alive. “The main help we need right now,” the cousin e-mails, “is prayers, prayers, prayers.”

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