Isaac approaching has brought up too many memories for a comfortable day at work. I left early to write this post.
7 years ago today, I was backcountry. My trail crew was just finishing up a 2 week trail rerouting project. I was so excited about my upcoming Americorps position with the National Civilian Community Corps. Life was epic. What would become one of the most pivotal events in my life was playing out on a horrible scale and I didn’t even know it.
A couple days later, my trail crew and I reached the town of Darby, Montana. We saw the news. Hurricane Katrina had hit the Gulf Coast and wreaked widespread devastation. Levees breached, looting, hundreds dead, hundreds of thousands homeless, all this was plastered across the newspapers we hadn’t seen in weeks. We were horrified and disbelieving. Later the death toll was updated to more than 1500 dead and more than 200,000 left homeless. 7 days later, I left for Americorps.
I remember how spectacularly governmental and a few private institutions failed to serve the people of the Gulf Coast. I had a particularly close look at FEMA, because my Americorps team, along with many others, was used by FEMA to fill out paperwork. In some cases, the paperwork we were completing for FEMA trailer residents had been filled out several times previous. People were angry. I remember the vitriol when people spoke of State Farm and FEMA. I remember how BAD I was at talking to FEMA trailer residents in a soothing manner. I remember thinking how much happier I would have been if they had just given us something to DO. I remember thinking how helpless, how useless I felt.
After a month of training for Americorps, we were latecomers to the disaster relief game. I remember thinking how tired everyone looked. I remember spray-painted X’s on houses. I remember the smell. I remember the debris. I remember the places where the water had scoured the debris away. I remember a broken plate.
The government is an inefficient machine. It could not handle the scale of the disaster that overtook it. The people that should have been leading the people of the Gulf Coast were ill-suited to do so in times of disaster. I’ve spent several summers working for the government in various capacities. Maybe it’s time I stopped. Maybe it’s a good thing that the space travel mantle is now swirling around the shoulders of private companies. Maybe the system is broken.
I also remember companies I have long despised, like Walmart, doing admirable things. While the Walmart building in Waveland, Mississippi was out of commission, Walmart operated out of their parking lot in tents.
I remember hearing from my parents how people even in Idaho were donating supplies. I remember volunteers by the thousands, entering the Gulf Coast like a second flood, more positive though much slower. I remember how the American people donated supplies and money for the Gulf Coast. Everything from bottled water to poptarts to diapers. There were lots of M&M’s. I know because I was there.
I remember how the American people forgot what divided them in the midst of this crisis. I remember how supportive everyone back home was. As you can imagine, Idaho is a very different place than Mississippi or Louisiana.
I hope humanity never loses the ability to set aside vast differences in order to help people in crisis. I hope that if we ever meet another intelligent species, this is one area we have in common.
I remember you, Gulf Coast, and I’m thinking about you today.