Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Big Picture: A View from Above

At the end of my last post ("Katrina, Leviathan"), I finished with the following phrase:

"How many other lessons must we learn the hard way before we take off our blinders and start trying to see the big picture? "

My question was purely rhetorical, but in the comments, Rick (my brother, provocative as always!) called me out, and followed up with a question:

"I have to admit though at the end I am left wondering: what is the big picture? Am i just one of the ones who has lost sight of it or is it missing on all of us?"

Perhaps his question was also rhetorical; most likely he was just baiting me (as he is wont to do!). But in trying to respond to him, I was forced to think a little more about my words (which is usually a good thing). Last Thursday night, after following the link and reading the essay he provided, I attempted to answer his question. But it was late, and I was tired, and I failed to achieve the synthesis I desired.

Last night I tackled it again, but as my response grew into something of a rambling essay, I realized that I had no simple answer. Rather than deleting my message and giving up, or just responding with some flippant remark, I decided to adapt the text and post it today as a blog entry.

So at the risk of letting my "family blog" degenerate into a "political blog", I will venture some additional comments. Rick: I don't know if I will manage to answer your question, but, whether you agree with anything I say or not, just take this as something of a "window" into my way of thinking.


Rick ...

I wasn't trying to make any profound political statement in my post; other than showing off my knowledge of philosophy (lol!), my only objective was to express the way I felt ... and still feel ... outraged, and dismayed, not that a disaster of this magnitude could happen in the US, but that the consequences of such a disaster could be so terrifying. That people can literally be dying in the streets while the whole world watches, several days after the hurricane hit. And that most of their putrifying bodies are still there, two weeks later.

Of course, this is my "premise": I consider this to be an unacceptable situation.

Obviously, by now it is clear that a number of factors contributed to making the response to this disaster so ... well, disastrous.

We had a major coastal city, much of which is situated at an altitude that is below sea level. We had a system of levees which was widely known to have been built to withstand hurricanes of up to Cat 3. We have had increasingly powerful and dangerous hurricanes forming over the carribean and gulf of mexico over the last few years. We have had decades of local and federal governments who have opted to roll the dice with this city, believing that the chances of hitting all sixes is once in 100 years.

We had hundreds of thousands of people living in this city below sea level. Tens of thousands of these people lived both below the poverty level, AND below sea level.

Local officials had no plan to get out the hundred thousand or so people who did't even have a car, let alone anywhere else to go. Or to get the people out of the nursing homes. Instead, they told people to go to the Superdome and Convention Center: locations with no generators, minimal stockpiles of food and water, no sanitation, and practically no security force to protect them.

On the surface, the blame for most of these failures falls on the local state and city governments, which should have had a plan for a crisis that was not only inevitable, it was more like a ticking bomb waiting to explode. These governments should be held accountable for any avoidable mistakes that could have saved human lives. People who shirked their own responsibilities: the owners of nursing homes or other facilities who decided to save their own lives and leave behind the weak and helpless to ride out the storm, are criminals and should be treated as such.

But on a deeper level, like 9/11, Katrina exposed how unprepared America still is for events that defy our capacity to imagine them. At a time in which every hour that passed meant more lives lost, the Federal government failed to follow the guidelines of its own Homeland Security National Response Plan. This plan, elaborated in response to 9/11, details the responsability of each federal agency, as well as those of the local government in the event of a crisis. The guidelines are clear and comprehensive, but of little use if they are ignored, or not enforced.

Federal authorities should be held accountable for not acting swiftly once it was clear that the local government authorities could not handle the situation; but who should be held accountable for the decades of neglect that left the city so vulnerable in the first place?


As to the "big picture": for me, to try and see the big picture is to attempt to look at the issues and problems from the perspective of an outsider, without the colored-glass filters of ideology and "conventional wisdom" through which we normally tend to view them; to strip away the artificial limitations on our own creativity that we ourselves impose when we choose to label ourselves "right" or "left", "conservative" or "liberal", "Republican" or "Democrat"; or when we embrace the labels imposed by others.

Natural disasters happen, and in general, they are a part of life, especially for people who knowingly reside in regions prone to them. But what is significant about New Orleans is not just the body count that's sure to skyrocket; I think it's clear that, had New Orleans been more prepared, much needless death, suffering, and terror could have been avoided. Even if you believe that the role of the federal government should be minimal, you cannot deny that the cost of Katrina to US taxpayers will be staggering ($100 billion +), not to mention the indirect costs (higher priced gasoline, charitable donations, etc.). Common sense should dictate that it would have been cheaper to "prevent" (prepare for adequately) the disaster than recover from it.

The other thing that Katrina revealed is that, in a very real sense, the vast pockets of abject poverty that reside within our major urban centers are disasters waiting to happen. The tragedy of New Orleans started long before the levees broke and the city was inundated; long before Katrina formed over the Atlantic, even. A long chain of events stretching back into history brought us to this point: a city vulnerable to a catastrophe of almost biblical proportions. The housing projects of New Orleans, like any other American city, are breeding grounds for generations of people without hope, without initiative, without the basic values our society covets and seeks to foster. Whether justifiably or not, many of these people feel left out, rejected by our "tribe"; it seems only natural that they form their own "tribes", their own culture even, where the family unit is often based on a welfare-dependent single mother. Out of this cauldron springs an angry faction with nothing to lose, without value even for human life, and without any limitations on their basest instincts.

You have the wolves, together with the sheep. New Orleans was far from being the largest, or even the most impoverished of American cities; and yet, there we saw how thin the dividing line between civilization and anarchy can be. This wasn't Haiti: we are talking about the continental United States of America. How long before the wolves realize they can overrun the sheepdogs again? How many troops would have to be deployed in Miami to get it back under control? Or Los Angeles? Or New York?

And don't try and compare 9/11 to New Orleans: although the impact and the scale of the tragedy may be comparable (in terms of human life, no one knows yet), we are still talking about just a single building! (well, two buildings). Try and imagine a major natural (or un-natural) catastrophe that provokes widespread destruction throughout Manhattan and the Bronx, or the entire north-eastern seaboard. Does anyone doubt we would we see anarchy on a scale never before imagined? Stop just for a second, and imagine the unimagineable!

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating paranoia. I'm talking about something far more subtle. I'm talking about having the honesty to look at a problem and admit it's a problem; and the self-confidence to say: "That's unacceptable. I don't know how to fix it, but, by God, I'm gonna fix it before it's too late." And the willpower to make hard and costly decisions now, even knowing that the payback may only benefit future generations.

Which is exactly what I am most worried about: the world my kids will inherit, and that their kids will grow up in. We can wage war on our enemies, build walls around our borders, maybe even protect ourselves from the external forces that threaten us; but what good will it all do if we have our own enemy within ?


I don't have the answers; all I really have is a lot of questions. I apologize if it sounds like I'm preaching, because that's not my intent. I don't believe in telling people what to think, which is why it sometimes makes me angry when I feel that people are trying to tell me how I should think. I do feel very strongly about certain issues that I believe transcend ideology; problems that will require modern, creative solutions that may not fit neatly within a vision of the world as viewed from the Right or the Left. But maybe if we could lighten up, be a little less radical, a little more open-minded, but a little less tolerant with injustice and the things that we know are wrong, than we might be able to rise above the walls that divide us and take in the view from above:

The "Big Picture".


At September 13, 2005 3:35 PM, Anonymous said...

Oh my...this is opening the proverbial "can of worms" Jim. So heyyy, great looking addition to your home!


At September 13, 2005 4:09 PM, Jim said...

Thanks! Don't worry! Tomorrow, it's back to our regularly scheduled programming!

At September 13, 2005 6:16 PM, Anonymous said...

There is only truth in what you said. The USA needs a lot of improvement. We need to clean up the mess this country is in, and care of our own people. No person should be living in the USA in poverty or sickness with no help or hope. If they live in proverty because they have been that way for generations, then that cycle should be broken by help for their children.

I'm afraid it's all about greed, corruption and politics. It just breaks my heart.

We have so much to change and correct here in the USA. I wouldn't have a clue where to start.

All I can do is help whenever I can, because I don't have the solutions. I just try not to be part of the problem.

I'm afraid I am very disappointed with my country for many reasons.


At September 14, 2005 12:21 AM, Anonymous said...

I think we, as Americans, for the most part choose not to think about the disadvantaged...until something like Katrina happens.

Extreme poverty in the United States is not a new thing. Slums in our major cities have been present for many, many years. While I have no facts to back it up, I'd venture a guess that the percentage of poverty today is in line or less then what there was in the 1960's or 70's.

I agree wholeheartedly that we as citizens should work towards a solution to help these people without enabling them.

In New Orleans, generations of families have existed on the welfare system. While I'm sure a few have managed to escape the wrath of poverty, the vast majority choose to remain in a system that needs a serious overhaul. It's simply not working.

While I'm far from a worldy traveler, I did have the opportunity to witness poverty up close. Kampala, Uganda is a city with close to a million residents, most who live in conditions that even our poorest residents of New Orleans would have found horrendous. These are people that have virtually zero opportunity to better themselves through education or otherwise. They struggle daily just to find food and water. Their housing, if they are fortunate enough to have any, consists of structures most Americans would not keep their pet in.

I used to have the view that a large part of the world was very similar to the U.S.A. This trip opened my eyes to the fact that more of the world is like Uganda then the United States. We live in an oasis of sorts. And yes, we're spoiled beyond belief...and I wouldn't trade it for the world.

While sometimes it is seemingly impossible, with the daily bombardment of the cable news channels, I try to have an optimistic view of our country. I still remember sitting in the middle of that city, comparing my children's childhood as well as my own, to those kids in Uganda...and thinking to myself ,"we do live in the greatest country on the face of this planet". I'm sorry if that's cliche' but that was my thought, on more then one occasion.

Yes, we need improvement. Yes, we make mistakes. But as Jim alluded to, we can make a difference if we work together. Since Katrina hit, I've witnessed literally thousands of folks from Southwest Missouri who have come forward to help in various ways. They've opened their homes to those who have found their way north from New Orleans. They have collected and sent truckloads of supplies. They have taken up collections at churches, workplaces, and communities. They have traveled to help with rebuilding.

So there is hope.


At September 14, 2005 4:40 AM, Mark said...

You made a lot of sense, and today as I left the grocery store, I was thinking about exactly the same thing you mention in your post. The United States just doesn't have the huge natural disasters that other countries have. Well, let me back up. When huge natural disasters happen (Mount St. Helen, hurricanes, the San Francisco area quake of 1989) we typically have more warning than the places we see reported on CNN, where they lose thousands because they simply didn't know it was coming.

In a way, New Orleans didn't "know" it was coming, either. The winds had died down and live reporters were saying they had dodged a bullet. Then the levee broke and all hell broke loose with it.

Yes, leaders should have addressed the levee problem long ago. But, at what point do you decide to "pre-rescue" people when there are levees in place that have always held in the past? As soon as you see that a category 5 storm is headed toward your category 3 levees, I guess. Placing blame for what didn't happen before the hurricane is more difficult than placing blame for the neglect after the flood. I'm rambling, and it's late.

At September 14, 2005 9:28 AM, Jim said...


Having reread my post now (a couple of times) I think I came off a little more pessimistic than I meant to sound. I don't really have such an apocalyptic view of the future as it probably sounded like. I agree with everything you say ... although I think that your experience in Uganda probably represents an extreme example of the worst that exists in the world. I.e, if the entire world were the United States, Uganda (and Africa as a whole) would be one of the New Orleans. (I don't mean that in any derogatory or racial sense ... )

But in general, you are right. Certainly, even here in Rio there are slums that make those of NOLA look like middle-class suburban neighborhoods.

I think you sum up very well the main point I was trying to make when you said:

I think we, as Americans, for the most part choose not to think about the disadvantaged...until something like Katrina happens.

Which is of course exactly what provoked my reflections. Otherwise poverty would be the last thing I would be talking about in my blog!

As you mention, there is a cycle of poverty that has persisted for decades, and will probably continue to persist as long as the status quo is maintained. Children growing up in New Orleans or Uganda will live as their parents did until something comes along and breaks that cycle.

Americans have a lot of goodwill, as you personally have exemplified with your trip to Uganda. The school you helped build and the example that you and people like you provide will very likely give some hope for a better life for many children who otherwise would never even know that another possibility existed. Some of these kids may now have a choice they would otherwise never have had. I'm glad that there are people and groups out there who don't wait for a hurricane to hit before they realize that there are people who need help now.

Of course, we all can't be saints. I think most Americans, and even most of the people in the world who are more advantaged (myself included) fall into this group. As much as I would like to follow your example, usually it is all I can do just to take care of my own kids!

In the long run, the only hope for Uganda is that they themselves take charge of their own country, and implement changes that will guarantee a greater opportunity for its own citizens. Perhaps the seeds you have planted will bear fruit for generations hence.

So the same is true of the United States (and here in Brazil also!). We need to look at what's working and what's not in our own country. Most of us are willing to contribute, but all we really want to know is that whatever contribution we make, be it through charity or through tax dollars, is really going to be put to some use that makes a difference. I think that much of our frustration with Government is that we sense exactly the opposite!

Ok, I'm starting to ramble again, so I'd better shut up!

But I really appreciate the comments, Greg. Take care!

At September 14, 2005 9:30 AM, Jim said...


I know what you mean about rambling late at night. I can do it in broad daylight!

Thanks for the comments!

At September 14, 2005 1:41 PM, Anonymous said...

I think our thoughts on the matter are very similar, just stated differently. I just couldn't help putting in my two cents.

I'm far from being a saint but thank you for the vote of confidence. The people of Uganda gave me far more then I could have ever hoped to give them.

Keep up the great writing....


At September 14, 2005 9:29 PM, Randa Dubnick said...

Interesting blog on the Katrina catastrophe, among the best I have seen, Jim.

At September 15, 2005 12:23 PM, Jim said...

Thanks Randa! It's kind of intimidating to know that a university English professor is reading my blog!

At September 15, 2005 7:52 PM, Mark said...

Jim, I don't know how else to reach you. You asked a question on a comment on my blog, and I answered it. Didn't want to post the whole thing here.

I'm thinking of switching to LiveJournal. They have a feature that allows replying to specific comments (which can reduce confusion), and e-mail notification when someone replies to a comment.

Also, just curious, why don't you use word ver?


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