Monday, September 15, 2008

In Scattering, and Tempest

The good news about Hurricane Ike is that so far the death toll has been much lower than was feared. The bad news is that many survivors are stranded without homes or food, and the areas nearest to them suffered damage, power loss, and other catastrophes that only adds to the misery of all:

More than 4 million people, several oil refineries and many businesses around Houston remained without power. Government agencies will distribute ice, water and packaged meals from tractor-trailers.

Long lines snaked around the few gas stations that were operating in and around Houston, where the car is king, but officials said tankers were rolling in with fuel. Even with gas, many stations remained without power.

"Tanker trucks are coming in to make sure service stations are given fuel," Ed Emmett, chief executive for Harris County, which includes Houston, told reporters.

The relief roll-out appeared to defuse tensions that had flared between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local officials after Houston Mayor Bill White vowed to hold FEMA accountable for delivering on its commitments. [...]

In Galveston, shocked and bewildered residents staggered through the streets as food and water grew scarce. There was little sign of any federal relief efforts.

"FEMA ain't been by, nobody," said disabled retiree Vivian Matthews, who was stranded at her flooded apartment for two days. "They don't give a damn if we live or die."

When so many people have been affected by this kind of damage and destruction, it's easy to get frustrated with the slow pace of help. But unfortunately the sheer size of Ike, the widespread path of destruction it left behind, and the difficulty for rescue workers, volunteers, and others to deliver aid and supplies to the suffering people means that the misery will go on for quite a while.

A storm of a completely different sort is looming on the horizon, as Wall Street is shaken by the winds of a kind of change nobody wants to believe in. The political parties were quick to offer their conclusions about the looming financial crisis: it's the other guy's fault:

"Unfortunately, what we are seeing on Wall Street is the legacy of the Bush-McCain economic policies that have failed this nation," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement, adding: "These events are a stark reminder that America needs a fresh and improved approach to governing, not one led by a leader who insists that the fundamentals of the economy are still strong, as Sen. McCain insisted today."

But House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) took a different tack, blaming the current congressional majority for the mess. "All across America, families are struggling with the fallout from the turmoil in the housing and financial markets -- another sign that the destructive tax-and-spend economic policies promoted by this Democratic Congress are failing to meet the needs of workers, seniors, and small businesses," Boehner said.

America is a nation of many blessings, gifts of health and peace and prosperity. But it's humbling to realize how easy it is for us to behave like various people in the Bible, as we come to believe that this is all of our doing, that we can provide for the needs of all people, continue to be financially secure, stockpile our grain and plan to build new storage for the abundance, all without remembering that our gifts come from God, and that we should be thankful for them. In time we can start to think that we're owed good things, that we're owed abundant food and clean water even in the nightmare after a monster hurricane, that we're owed that secure retirement that just got wiped out in the worst day on Wall Street in years. We've spent so much time thinking it's all in our hands, believing that we could control our own destinies, enrich ourselves, even turn back the rising flood waters (yes, we can!) that it's more than a little shocking to be confronted with the reality that, no, we can't, and never could.

Like Job, we are reminded that we weren't around when the Earth was called into being, when the sun first played its rays across a newborn planet, when creation exploded in color and joy and fell into sin, when kings and empires rose to glory, glittered in brief triumph, and then crumbled into unremembered dust. We can no more order our existence than we can order the sea to stop rising in advance of a tempest, or reclaim money that has been scattered to the wind in a moment's display of capitalism's weakness (for, heresy though it may be to say it, capitalism has weaknesses as well as strengths).

None of this is meant to diminish the pain of those who suffer loss, whether that loss occurs as a result of nature's violence or of man's greed. It's an expression of solidarity with them, for we too know that we do not control our days or hours, that we exist in peace and tranquility only by the grace of God, and that whatever suffering He has in store for us will come in its time, just as the joys and graces have come in theirs. But seeing the reactions to the hurricane, or to the Wall Street shakiness, I find myself hoping that when the day of tribulation does come I won't first start looking for someone to blame, but be able to hold on to that tranquility, that peace that passes all understanding, and is able to say to Lady Sorrow what it does to Lady Joy: His Will be done.


Babs said...

In viewing the general destruction and helplessness, I have to call a spade a spade and express extreme frustration with the people who rebuild in obviously dangerous and weather-prone areas, who refuse to plan for thier families, who refuse to heed well publicized warnings of "certain death," and who think it is the responsibility of others to save them, at great risk to their deliverers. At great expense to fellow citizens.

I find it hard to consider this simply a natural disaster, but find it a disaster of personal responsibility. While it is true "we too know that we do not control our days or hours," we can at least give it the ol' college try. Sometimes we can. And we don't. We flatly refuse.

Fifty years from now we'll be seeing the same island houses on stilts blown about like matchsticks, and the same passionate pleas for help from people who have been warned for decades of this danger. Is anyone else out there like me just a little short on compassion this time?

John Thayer Jensen said...

Babs - what you say might apply to some - but perhaps not to as many as you might think. I think you are leaving out the reality of most peoples' lives.

I live in a very volcanic part of New Zealand. I am in New Zealand because I was able to get a job. I am in this spot because there was a house I could afford - and the place I live is one of the cheaper parts of the area. I haven't chosen a spot despite its dangers; I have been able to find a place I could get a job, make a living, rear my family. By the way, we are in a fairly crime-ridden part of town, too. Nothing I can do about it, really. I cannot afford to move.

I suspect that a lot of communities got started where they are for pressing economic reasons - and that a lot of people live where they live for similar reasons. No doubt there are some who have a lot of choice in front of them, and choose to live somewhere risky because they just like the view or something - and assume that others will take care of them. I doubt that is the situation of most of them.


Anonymous said...

Unless something has changed, to live in Galveston is EXPENSIVE! In other words, you pay for the view!
This reminds me of Katrina. Although it wasn't as strong, it still did a lot of damage and was very destructive. They should have left unless they were part of emergency personal. I do believe some of the warnings, at least here, were; "IF you don't leave, we may not be able to get to you or food to you and you may die." I remember hearing that for Hurricane Ike.

Anonymous said...

As for 'blaming' dear Red, if one looks for some excrement, one's nose will surely find it. Somehow, in the midst of what I was doing in my everyday work, as the aftermath of the hurricane hit hard in the mideast as well, I didn't feel a necessity to look for whomever was blaming others for the matter. Surely, when a natural disaster is involved, we don't have to consider who's to blame? Tranquility in one's demeanor perhaps is as well spent in looking to one's blessings, finding out how best to contribute to relieve the suffering (and knowing that one's effort is helpful) not looking to find a bone to pick with others --whether PC or not.

Red Cardigan said...

Not sure I understand your point, Engeltine. I can pray for the victims and contribute to their relief without failing to notice our universal human tendency to blame other people for our problems (see Adam: Eden: blaming Eve over the apple, whereupon Eve promptly blames the serpent). And I can reflect on that, and hope to weed it out in my own heart, right? Or ought we never to look to human experience for abstract moral lessons?

Babs said...

"Nothing I can do about it, really" is the kind of attitude in particular that I cannot understand. It makes your situation permanent in your mind and is an enemy of growth, ingenuity, and hope.

If your situation is dangerous to your family in any way, get out. Change careers, change your education, get movitated and get out. I cannot believe that there is only one neighborhood and one job in the whole of this world for you. I'm buying the defeatest attitude, even if you were disabled or truly poor. If you value the safety of your family above all else, you'd leave if it were truly dangerous.

I'd be a bit more sympathetic to "I'm living somewhere dangerous right now, but I'm working to get out."

John Thayer Jensen said...

Babs and "Nothing I can do about it..."

Gee, well, I suppose I could. Mind you, I am 66 on Monday, still working since we have no savings, are significantly in debt, have a very rundown house, and have a few minor attractions around like our kids in the area, our church, etc. But I suppose it is just all my fault and I am one of those losers who is stuck in a no-growth situation.

Unless, of course, we are talking about growth in another sense...

Economic growth is not, I must confess, high on my list - and running around to find a safer spot - let's see - I could move to the North Shore - hmm... but they have had floods and mudslips lately. And it would be a little tricky changing jobs, so I guess we would just have to find a way to live on the pittance the state pension gives us. Of course there is another danger there - no money for medicine.

Thanks for the tip! I'll give it some deep thought...


Red Cardigan said...

Babs, John, let's try not to get personal.

The truth is that not everyone *can* get out of a dangerous area to live. There are poor farming communities around active volcanoes elsewhere in the world, and the thousands killed by the Boxing Day Tsunami a few years ago didn't have anywhere to go, either.

In terms of Galveston, TX, I know that some people have lived there for generations. I think that those who ignored warnings and stayed were foolish, IF they had the means and the ability to evacuate. But unless we want to live in a country where the Nat'l Guard forcibly evacuates people we have to realize that some people will always think they can "outsmart" the weather.

The real problem lies in believing we're truly in control of our own destinies--yet a single storm, weather or financial, can prove otherwise. This isn't an excuse for defeatism, on the one hand, but it's not a reason to think that our health and safety is all our own doing, on the other.

John Thayer Jensen said...

Babs - I owe you an apology. Precisely because you don't know my actual situation, for that very reason I understand that you were not attacking me personally. Please forgive me. My only point is that not all of us are free in every respect and that each of us may have to set priorities differently from others for a variety of good reasons. I shouldn't have shot back with smart-mouthed sarcasm and I apologise.