Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Train Derailed: A Nightmare in New Orleans

I keep hearing Arlo Guthrie singing in my head: “I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans…”.

For the second straight day this single line from this old song just keeps on running through my mind.

The train is derailed, nearly obliterated, certainly damaged beyond recognition by what in many ways will go down as the worst natural disaster in American history, a behemoth of a hurricane named Katrina.

The last time that Katrina and the Waves hit New Orleans, everyone was “Walking on Sunshine”. The one-hit wonder singer and band from the late 1980’s brought their sound, led by a bouncy, upbeat, sunny song, to the Bayou.

Today, even when the sun is shining, few people are singing, and even fewer can even utter the name of Katrina without prefacing it with the worst of profanities.


There are many innocent victims. Many folks who, for a variety of reasons, simply could not get out of the way of this monster. For a couple of days preceding the landfall of this massive killer, the danger that she was bringing with her was both predicted and more than adequately warned.

But some had family members that were immobile. Some had no way to get out. They had no car, or inadequate finances for what rapidly became few ways out via public transportation. They had little choice but to hunker down in their homes, or in the New Orleans Superdome, and hope for the best, pray for a reprieve.

Unfortunately there were many, many more who stayed because they just simply didn’t believe. They knew the possibility for decades. Folks have been warned about the situation that the City of New Orleans was in, surrounded by water and laying below sea level. The type of hurricane that was finally realized on Monday, August 29th, 2005 was discussed as an inevitability for the past half century.

But many stayed anyway. They had lived through numerous false alarms in the past. Storms that looked deadly for awhile usually turned away in the last days or hours, or weakened to the point of some wind and rain, but certainly nothing of a biblical level.

They felt that they could ride it out, go out in the morning, and begin the cleanup process. Maybe stock up a few days of food, and be without things like regular phone service, cable TV, even electricity for a few days.

There were many, many of these types, and how wrong they were. This one was different, and they were told early on and all along that it would be different.

I watched the buildup of this storm on Friday and Saturday, and saw every major news outlet reporting that this was going to be a storm of unprecedented damage in the New Orleans area, and would do tremendous damage throughout the entire Gulf area.

I saw the warnings, and saw the folks fleeing by the hundreds of thousands. Unfortunately, thousands more did not heed these dire warnings.

Now, the City of New Orleans is virtually destroyed. Sure, most of the buildings are still standing. The world famous Superdome sports facility still stands.

But the levees that protect the city from the surrounding water, particularly the waters of the large Lake Pontchartrain, finally broke, weakened by the power of the storm and the force of the waters, and those waters came flowing into the bowl that makes up the basic shape of the former "Big Easy."

The images that are coming more fast and furious from the news media as the days go by paint a picture of an America that we have rarely seen in the past, never on such a massive scale.

American citizens are now refugees, fleeing a major American city that has been devastated and is no longer viable. They have no food, no water, no money, no job to go to, no place to live, no medicine, no sure means of communication.

And the looting is ridiculous. No, not the taking of abandoned bottles of water, abandoned containers of food, abandoned dry clothing, abandoned medications. Not a single police officer or law enforcement official at any rank from any organization, under those conditions, would be stopping anyone from taking these things.

In fact, help in getting these items into the hands of those who need them, which is basically everyone at this point, is justified and called for. But I have seen folks carrying out televisions, music CD's, DVD's, etc. Ridiculous, callous, even stupid. There is, after all, no electricity, and there may not be for months, if ever.

It is hard to believe that I am going to say this in my lifetime, but in many ways this is worse than the results of the attacks of 9/11.

That was a traumatic shock that shook many of us to our individual cores. America was attacked on our own soil by a foreign enemy, symbols of our previous invincibility were destroyed, thousands of our citizens were killed and wounded.

The massive cleanup efforts in Manhattan took months, and even today, four years later, things are not yet rebuilt and back to some semblance of normalcy.

But the fact is, that was one corner of one section of a city, albeit the largest and most visible city in the world. This is an entire city, and in not just that city, but many of the surrounding communities as well.

Nearly every usable inch of New Orleans is under water. Buildings, homes, businesses are now literally inside a lake. The entire city is being evacuated, martial law has been declared, and there is even talk that they may simply choose not to rebuild the city at all.

No crawfish and seafood gumbo? No Mardi Gras or Saints football? No Bourbon Street or French Quarter? No Crescent City? No Big Easy?

No New Orleans, Louisiana? Is that really even a possible outcome here?

How not only this region, but this entire country, reacts to and attacks this disaster will tell us much about who we are going to be as a people into the future.

This is not just a local and regional problem, this is a national problem. We all need to decide that we are going to help these people to recover and rebuild their lives in some way.

Donate money, donate time. Listen to television and radio for opportunities to help, they will be there.

One could write all day about his disaster, and many of us probably will over the coming months. For now, will simply end this with the final two verses of Guthrie’s classic ditty:

But all the towns and people seem to fade into a bad dream
And the steel rail still ain't heard the news
The conductor sings his songs again
"The passengers will please refrain:
This train got the disappearin' railroad blues
Good night America, how are you?
Say don't you know me? I'm your native son!
I'm the train they call the City of New Orleans.
I'll be gone 500 miles when the day is done.

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