Tuesday, August 30, 2005

How bad it can be

The images, words, stories, everything coming out of the area hit by the hurricane now are terrifying. I want to take a step back from it but I can't. It's not so much the scale of the devastation that scares me. It's the human aspect of it, the human reaction to it.

A couple days ago, before all this happened, I was thinking about our culture and how much we take its stability for granted. I take it for granted that the police and firefighters are going to be there to deal with the situation I wrote about in my previous post, about the tanker leaking styrene all over. There are people built into our society to handle incidents like that. I take it for granted that I won't suddenly be forced into a situation where I don't have access to food or drinking water; that if disaster struck, a tornado or something, I’d have some place to go, if I lived. This is basic. This is trusting the idea you hold by necessity in your head that America works. And yet over the course of one storm, a major U.S. city has turned into...into hell, from all accounts.

What scares me so much about what’s going on is that it shows me that we are not as infallible as we think we are. What scares me more than nature is chaos. Nature I can understand. The recent Photo Friday challenge was "chaos," meaning, display a picture that to you embodies the meaning of the word "chaos." Many people post pictures of nature for challenges like this—stormy skies, fields of tangled grass, pigeons fighting. I don't understand this. Nature is ordered. Even this hurricane--this is order. This is cause and effect. It didn't just come up out of nowhere, reasonless, a surprise. It's a result of water temperatures and barometric pressure and wind, and whatever else comprises the recipe for a hurricane. I understand this storm. This storm is not chaos, to me.

Chaos is what happens when you cram thousands and thousands of people who have lost everything, in some cases including people they love, into a sports arena that's overheated and filling with water and has no functioning toilets, near the sea in a city that sits below sea level, because there’s nowhere else for them to go. That is chaos. Unless you experience that, you are never, going, to understand it. You are never going to understand that exact combination of panic and terror and loss that every single person inside the Superdome is experiencing right now. I noticed that the flow of video and images from the Superdome stopped sometime early this morning. I don’t know that this is because of technical issues. My thoughts are that it’s because we don’t want to see what’s happening in there. It must be intense. It must be intense beyond belief.

And what’s happening inside the Superdome is just the smallest piece of what’s going on all along the coast.

I fear the unraveling of a society. I force myself to take in records of humanity at its worst because I have this unquenchable need to know how bad it can be, as if on some level, watching depictions of the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide or the rape of Nanking can make me prepared for the possibility, however slight, that society as we know it could change. We take so much for granted. Human nature is something I believe most Americans have only limited ability to understand in depth because we haven’t been exposed to deprivation; most of us, while we may worry about paying the bills, have never had to know hunger. We take it for granted that a health care system exists, that if something horrible happens to us, even if we’re uninsured, we’re going to be able to get the care we need. We take it for granted that we’ll have access to potable water. That there is a network to catch us if we fall.

When those things go away, those safety nets, human nature changes. How would you react if you suddenly had to face the prospect that there might not be drinking water in your future, that you had no idea where your next meal would come from, that you might have to send your children to sleep hungry, in a flooding shelter that you are supposedly, at some point, going to be evacuated from, while you wonder if your extended family members, who decided to ride out the storm at home, are still alive? Even if you considered yourself a decent, peaceful person, you might find yourself going to extremes in order to do what you felt would ensure your own survival.

The way society is supposed to work is collapsing right now in part of our country. Fortunately, as bad as it is, it seems we have the resources necessary to pull people through this. But images of looting on CNN, pictures of boats pushing past dead bodies to get at people still clinging to their roofs above water full of debris and sewage, prisoners herded onto what’s left of a mostly-underwater highway ramp—I have to wonder how the structures we’ve built into society to take care of this sort of thing are going to hold up. I am afraid of this. I am afraid of the amount of pain and suffering I’m forcing myself to try to imagine. I’m afraid for the people who have to deal with this. I’m afraid of the effects it’s going to have on the rest of our society.

Last night I dreamed I was on an oil rig during the hurricane. I dreamed I was on one built into the ocean floor, watching one built to float. I watched it dip and sway in the water as the storm tore around it, around the metal I was holding on to. I watched it begin to fall toward me in slow motion as a huge wave crested beneath it, watched it right itself, felt my hold on the metal framework I was clutching start to slip. I woke up when I lost my grip and started falling toward the water, which separated beneath me somehow, as if I were repulsive to it, as if it didn’t want to catch me. I woke breathless and terrified to the sound of rain, to the fat drops of water hitting my roof, to what was left of the same storm I’d been dreaming of, now softer, now quieter, now spinning itself out in water, water, water, running down the roof and gutters of my house, collecting in puddles the thirsty earth around me sucks into itself.

This human reaction I had to such a simple thing—a dream, edging into nightmare—is intense enough for me. To the people who can’t wake up from those sensations of fear because they’re living them, awake—I only hope they’re able to find the resources within themselves to cope. I hope they can be helped. I hope that somehow, they are povided a net to fall into.


At August 31, 2005 1:31 AM, Anonymous Fitèna said...

Hey J, reading your post made me rethink to myself what I did the other day while watching the news. It was this feature on forest fires in Portugal forcing people to flee their homes, their lives. What struck me more wasn't the fire of the fact that those poor people had to endure hell in the real sens of the term. No, the camera zoomed on this one man; and I knew just what desperation means. It doesnt mean being heart broken, it doesnt mean loosing your job. What it meant was this one man was running towards the fire with a bucket of water, a BUCKET OF WATER to extinguish it.... I felt, I don't know how I felt, but it was more than sadness, just a helplessness in the face of such misery.... I love your blog....

At August 31, 2005 4:58 AM, Blogger cmhl said...

beautiful post. and what a scary dream you described. my significant other used to fly helicoptors back and forth from the mainland to those offshore rigs--- so that caught my eye.

At August 31, 2005 1:36 PM, Blogger Sangroncito said...

There is something terribly apocalyptic about what's happening in New Orleans and the Gulf coast that is both horrifying and riveting. I wonder what could send the country over the edge right now...a major terrorist attack...a monster earthquake here in California....that would overstretch our resources so much that chaos would extend everywhere. Scary stuff.

At August 31, 2005 3:17 PM, Anonymous Heather said...

Ouch, nothing like that entry to kill a Starbucks high. No one wants to think about those things, but I guess we should; very moving entry.

As for music... my taste is kind of all over the board, but can't get enough of Natasha Bedingfield (sp?) right now. Two songs I can't seem to help but play over and over, and over... These Words, and Unwritten.

At August 31, 2005 3:34 PM, Blogger Sorted Lives said...

Well written. I can only hope in this VAST devistation, good can come from it -- I always try to believe that in my heart!

At August 31, 2005 5:36 PM, Anonymous Suley said...

The two major pipelines that bring gas from the gulf into N.C. have no electricity. By the end of the week there will be no gas flowing into the state.



At August 31, 2005 5:52 PM, Blogger Walter said...

Good post. I'll be "hoping" right along with you.

At August 31, 2005 6:55 PM, Blogger Mr. H.K. said...

Thoughtful and important post.

Mr. H.K.
Postcards from Hell's

And I Quote Blog

At August 31, 2005 9:56 PM, Anonymous E said...

Beautifully written and captures exactly how I'm feeling. You, as usual, articulate it much better than I could hope to. Several gas stations around here are already closed down...they expect most stations to run out before the end of the weekend...it's all just an inconvenience compared to the real suffering going on further south.

At August 31, 2005 10:04 PM, Blogger Indigo said...

I have trust that there will always be someone to take care of my needs should something catastropic ever happen to me, but you've made some really good points. I hope I never have to feel the kind of panic and desperation those people are feeling.

Excellent words you've strung together. You should be published.

At September 01, 2005 9:35 PM, Blogger Heather said...

Wonderful post. Very poignant.

At September 01, 2005 11:55 PM, Blogger firedawg said...

My friend it seems that Bush dropped the ball again. I shudder to think of those needlessly trapped in attics, dying of heat and dehydration.
How the federal government could abandon all those poor, sick, and elderly is beyond me.
"All you that can afford it must leave. You poor people......."
Poor ol W broke off his vacation on Wednesday afternoon. Guess he heard something was going on!!


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