Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hurricane Katrina and Impermanence

Today is the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the most destructive and deadly storms to hit the United States in the past century. Although completely dwarfed by the tsunami that devastated South Asia less than a year earlier, Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, killed more than 1,600 people in Louisiana and Mississippi and left behind more than $40 billion in property damage.

For the past four years, the people living along the Gulf Coast have struggled to rebuild their lives. They have repeatedly been ignored or shafted by the local, state, and federal governments that supposedly represent them. Corporate interests, including housing developers and for-profit charter schools, have swarmed in on the city of New Orleans, making millions off the suffering population there. Private citizens initially flooded to help in the aftermath, and money and supplies generously flowed during the first months after the storm. However, like most disasters relief efforts, the rest of the world moves on, and mostly forgets about what happened and the continued needs present.

Many of those who died in the aftermath of the storm were stranded in the city of New Orleans, unable to flee. Mostly poor and working people, predominantly people of color, these folks often didn't have access to vehicles to get out of town the way the rest of the population did. And while there were the stubborn few who wouldn't leave even when offered help leaving, the media over emphasized these examples, and under reported on the struggles of the others.

Despite all this, there has been a lot of progress, primarily as a result of grassroots efforts on the part of everyday residents and their allies. Disasters seem to bring out both the best in humans and the worst. People who never knew each other, who maybe lived on the same block in the same city for years, now can't imagine not working together to make a better life. Even though I have never been to the Gulf Coast, since the storm happened, I have tried to keep tabs on the whole thing. If anything, doing so is a reminder that such devastation can happen rapidly, and that impermanence is everywhere, bringing changes we often never imagined possible.

My guess is that many who live along the Gulf Coast have a greater appreciation for their lives. It reminds me of the zen message that is often called out to the assembly after a session of zazen - "Take heed! Take heed! Make use of this precious life!" I don't think you need to lose everything in a hurricane to wake up to the meaning of this call.

1 comment:

Jennifer Campaniolo said...

Hi Nathan,

I just read a good book about a young couple who go back to New Orleans mere days after the hurricane to try and rebuild. It's amazing what they went through, and four years later, they still have two unfinished rooms. But what's amazing is that they loved their hometown so much that they would endure much hardship and danger just to reclaim the city they loved. I don't think I would feel the same way about my town! In a way, they're lucky...

The book is Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around by Cheryl Wagner.