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Someday Is Coming

I was an environmental studies major in college. To fill my requirements in the largely cross-listed interdisciplinary major, I found myself one semester in an environmental geology class. It was supposed to be a gut course, and as a science major I didnít expect much of it. It turned out to be fascinating. It was also probably better titled Natural Disasters and How Humans Make Them Worse.

There I heard, not for the last time, about the highly dangerous mess that the Army Corps of Engineers had made of the Mississippi River and the Louisiana coast by forcing that mighty river into ever straighter, deeper, and faster channels to facilitate shipping. (In case you havenít heard, among other things, this means the river drops less silt at the delta, decimating the protective wetlands and bringing the sea ever closer to New Orleans.) Allowing development on the remaining wetlands didnít help.

And I know in the course of my studies I heard or read someone say ďSomeday New Orleans is going to be under water.Ē And I know Iíve heard or read or said it at least once or twice since then. None of us who said it wanted to be right. I imagine few were able to really believe we would be.

As the horror was unfolding in New Orleans, this creepy fact was sitting uneasily in the back of my head. I am always surrounded by dire predictions that thoughtful people have frustratedly made after looking at an analysis of the bad, shortsighted policies of our governments and corporations.

Not random, unavoidable things like ďWell, maybe an asteroid will hit the Earth,Ē but things that can reasonably be predicted by looking at the facts on the groundólike, say, global warming, disappearing coastal wetlands, lack of investment in levee repair and an absence of evacuation plans and preparedness that even impoverished nations like Cuba and Mexico manage to have. Things that experts in the relevant fields are shouting themselves hoarse trying to make people worried about: a world wide pandemic of Asian bird flu. Reinstatement of the draft. Use of nuclear weapons by someone. A plant disease that wipes out our no-longer genetically diverse food stock. Rising ocean levels submerging a few more cities. China deciding itís time to wield its economic power to disrupt the U.S. economy. Add your own favorite.

It is, or was, fairly easy to say these things, and then look around at the normal world around me and fail to really grasp that they could happen now. Or soon. Even 9/11, which had been predicted in a loose way, had not been predicted anywhere near as specifically as the Hurricane Katrina floods, and there wasnít quite the clarity of what could have been done to stop it (the results of Katrina cannot be blamed on any outsiders). So while traumatic, 9/11 didnít push the same oh-shit-it-actually-happened button.

The other thing Katrina threw into stark relief is how utterly awful some of these things that from a distance might seem like needed correctives actually are, especially for the already disempowered.

Iím sure youíve said or heard such things: Maybe if such-and-such a disaster happens, itíll be just what we need to wake us up. (Already there is the hope that Bushís pathetic response to this tragedy has exposed his administration for what it is to millions of voters whom Kerry couldnít convince.) Maybe the best thing that could happen would be for the U.S. economy to just nosedive so weíre kicked out of the driverís seat of world affairs. Maybe . . .

These things are said not exactly as wishes, but they sometimes have a sordid appeal because they allow us to step back from the intimidating prospect of trying to figure out how to force urgent yet incredible large-scale change ourselves. It can be nice to think that maybe itíll just be out of our hands.

It can be easy to forget that even if the long-term structural shifts happen, in the short term the pain and suffering is visited multiple times worse on the already sufferingóthe poor, disabled, ill, the residents of the neighborhoods that have been stuck in the low-lying filled-in wetland, the folks who donít have the cash reserves to ride out inflation and invest in Euros, or the relative. Itís ugly. Superdome-last-week ugly. People-still-starving-on-bridges ugly.

Wishing idly for such a means to an end is no better than the fundamentalists who crow about Godís vengeance on a wicked city. Perhaps it is worse, without the accompanying belief that the deserving poor who get screwed by the disaster will find their reward in heaven.

This is not, of course, a particularly fruitful line of thought, just one Iím wading through as I try not only to get my brain around this disaster, but to recalibrate my world view to the near-certainty that the frequency of stuff like this is going to increase over my lifetime. Hardly a trial compared to being anywhere near Katrinaís path (did I even need to say that?), but an exercise that seems kind of important nonetheless.

Iím not going all fatalistic on youóthis is not the shock of facing something completely unavoidable. Itís the shock of being reminded that the seriousness of our governmentís actions (or lack thereof), and of our messing with the environment, has not been exaggerated. There is a tremendous amount of proper righteous anger to be expended about what happened in Mississippi and Louisiana. Letís see if we can do it in a way that prevents or at least mitigates the next catastrophe, rather than relying on it to be a wake-up call.

óMiriam Axel-Lute

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