And Now, New Orleans

By Lex, on Tue – August 30, 2005


Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds” – Robert Oppenheimer, quoting the Bhagavad Gita

How very human to have thought such a thing. How very human to think that we can, through the application of our energies and our intellect, not just create our world, but also destroy it. To believe that the power is within us, in our hands. How like a god is man in apprehension, wrote Shakespeare, and maybe even he believed it.

And as a species, we have proven capable of remarkable efforts, both in the creation of the artifacts of our civilization, and in the destruction of those our fellow inhabitants, through wars, or famines born of stupidity or criminal mismanagement. But then Gaia finds a way to reduce us all to scale and speechlessness again. On Boxing Day last year, she twitched a muscle in her sleep and a quarter million windows on the universe were abruptly closed forever. New Orleans was more lucky. But still we see the familiar images of the unthinkable: People wading through the waist high waters where the street should be, where it had always been. The light switch that doesn’t do anything when thrown, the filthy water from the tap. I’ve never been more disoriented than I was driving with my family back to Key West after Hurricane Andrew ripped its way across southern Florida. The roads had been cleared in Miami and Homestead, but that was about it. All signs were gone, streetlights and buildings flung to dust and tangles. Nothing was familiar, and everything was real. Men in BDUs with rifles on the intersections, and I couldn’t find my way to the US 1, the long, lonely road that would bring us all home. Finally got back there to listen to the whine of the gas-turbine powered generators which the city had laid in against just such an emergency. Listened to the dialogue about whether “we,” as prudent as we’d been, should share our power with those further up the keys who hadn’t laid in such stores, or taken such precautions. It’s a strange feeling to go to the Winn Dixie and find out that the bottled water is all sold out. It takes you back a peg or two from the place you customarily occupy, the warm and cozy place from where you feel empowered to rail against the injustice of the world, and your political opponents. When your back is truly up against it, the “other” gets defined in increasingly broad terms.

How flimsy are the constructs of civilization, faced with the merciless and inhuman power of natural disaster, and how helpless are we to do anything to stop an earthquake or hurricane. There is no reasoning with an earthquake, no bargaining with a hurricane, you cannot shame them. And it’s not not just the constructs of civilization which are so frail and tender, the infrastructure we accustom ourselves to, but also the human veneer: Proud and capable people are left to gesture fruitlessly from rooftops to helicopter crews, pointing out burning houses across flooded thoroughfares that no fireman can traverse. Looters roam the waterlogged streets of one of America’s most diverse and fascinating cities, now become in a day’s time only the latest example of a uninhabitable wasteland. People wonder how they are going to get food. Where they are going to find water. And in the way of hurricanes in particular, it always seems that those who have the least are hardest hit. Tornados spun from hurricanes seem to have a special affinity for trailer parks.

No doubt the Indonesian navy will be pulling up in just a few days to help restore services, and provide medical care.

Oh, that’s not even a cheap shot, just a weak jape. We’ll be fine of course, we’ll struggle through, and rebuild although it’s bound to be hot and nasty work. Other nations will only make pro forma offers of assistance and really, who can blame them. But let’s just put the difference here between what we expect of the world, and what the world has come to expect of us in our hip pockets for the next time that some greasy-haired community college kid with a safety pin through his eyebrow tries to tell us how Amerikkka is the root of all the world’s evil.

It’s hard to find anything good about natural disasters, but speaking only in relative terms, I think they are at least slightly more congenial than the man-made kind. Even if I do struggle to simultaneously maintain that they are, on the whole, more devastating. An earthquake is a comprehensively democratic event, as random as the lottery and none of your getting will get you free when the jaws of the world open up to dine upon your tenderness, while a hurricane at least gives you time to move out of its path. And then there is the issue of blame: Oh, I suppose someone somewhere will be excoriated for the lamentable state of Lake Ponchartrain levees, but everyone will know at the bottom of their hearts that nothing can ever be made entirely secure from the depredations of mother nature. On the other hand however, it’s very unlikely that a Michael Moore will bestir his elephantine corpulence to bewail that it was so unfair the hurricane struck New Orleans: Didn’t it realize that New Orleans didn’t vote for Bush?

One more thing, I guess to add to all the rest. It is the weight of our burdens, and the way in which we carry them that give us character. Throw the shovel over the shoulder and get back to work, brother. Save who you can, mourn who you must, build it back up again.

If it keeps on raining, levee’s going to break
If it keeps on raining, levee’s going to break
When the levee breaks I’ll have no place to stay

Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan
Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan
It’s got what it takes to make a mountain man leave his home

Don’t it make you feel bad when you’re trying to find your way home
You don’t know which way to go
If you’re going down south, they got no work to do
If you’re going on to Chicago

Crying won’t help you – praying won’t do you no good
No, crying won’t help you – praying won’t do you no good
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move

All last night I sat on the levee and moaned
All last night sat on the levee and moaned
Thinking ’bout my baby and my happy home

Going – I’m going to Chicago
Going to Chicago
Sorry but I can’t take you
Going down – I’m going down now
Going down – I’m going down now
I’m going down —

— “When the Levee Breaks” Led Zeppelin              


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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Lex, Life, Neptunus Lex

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