The New Orleans that was.

Author:Neuhaus, Richard

We remember the big ones. There was Carla in 1961, Camille in 1969, and Andrew in 1992. Katrina will not be the last. When she hit, I checked the National Hurricane Center website, which indicated that names are already chosen for the next ones to hit the Atlantic Coast: Lee, Maria, Nate, Ophelia, Philippe, and Rita. I don't know what happened to the others, but we've already heard from Ophelia and Rita. The names are nicely gender-balanced. Names are scheduled for hurricanes through the year 2007, and history will, it seems likely, not end in 2007. But Katrina will, I expect, have a very special place in that history. Our anthropomorphic naming does not seem to personalize our disposition toward such disasters. In Katrina's case, a lot of people are very mad, but nobody appears to be very mad at her. Or at Mother Nature, or, for that matter, at God.

Only a few months ago, David Hart published his powerful little book, The Doors of the Sea, which asked in its subtitle: Where Was God in the Tsunami? Few people seem to be raising that question this time around. Maybe it was asked before because most of us didn't know anyone else to blame in Thailand, Sri Lanka, or Indonesia. This time there are lots of people to blame, and we know their names. Edward Rothstein of the New York Times says we're not asking the theodicy question because belief in God is weaker, and we assume human beings are, or should be, in control of everything. I'm rather sure the first part of that is wrong, but, if by "we" he means the media, he is right that the news business is more comfortable talking about human culpability than about a fallen creation, very much including nature, raging against the will of God.

Katrina concentrated, or should have concentrated, our minds on the fragility of both nature and human circumstance. "As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more," Psalm 103 declares. Make that the wind and the water. Many barely knew the names of some of those places, such as Delacroix, Mandeville, and Gulfport. But just about everybody knew New Orleans, either personally or by reputation. There were those who said it was a wicked city and deserved what it got.

Wickedness takes many forms. Beyond the fragility of nature and human mortality, the fragility of elementary decency was repugnantly on display during those September days. The looters, the rapists, the people shooting at rescue workers: They were on around-the-clock display on the television screens of the world for days on end. Reporters and anchors shied away from mentioning the obvious, that they were black--since one ineptly phrased reference to that reality, and a journalist...

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