The tragedy that has been unfolding on our television screens for ten days is horrifying, devastating, unprecedented.
America is regularly assaulted by hurricanes, floods, fires and earthquakes, but the assault of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast is the worst natural disaster in this nation’s history.
Much of the Gulf Coast has been reduced to rubble.
No one knows yet how many people in Mississippi and Alabama were killed in the storm, but bad and sad as that is, what has happened to New Orleans, one of America’s great cities, and its residents is worse.
This proud, eccentric city, where jazz was born and thrived, was hit by walls of water and almost literally drowned. Hundreds of people died instantly or were swept away. Uncounted thousands of others lost their homes, and everything else but their lives.
No one knew how many people were out there, trapped in the rubble, but still alive.
Meanwhile, what was left of the Big Easy simmered in a kind of toxic soup – flood water laced with oil and other chemicals, fecal matter, dead bodies. Many survivors made their way to the Convention Center and the Superrdome. There were reports of looting, shootings in the streets, but things weren’t any better in the Dome or the Convention Center – little or no food or water, no beds, no medical supplies, nothing but time and misery.
And, to the astonishment and horror of the nation and the world, it took the government of the richest and most powerful nation in the world not minutes, not hours, not a day, but nearly a week to respond in any significant way to this enlarging and enveloping emergency.
Why? No one seems to know. President Bush, FEMA officials, Homeland Security officials were all talking over the weekend about what the government was doing, but no one willing or able to explain why it waited so long to do it.
And so this American tragedy is now also a national disgraceAbraham Lincoln once called America “the last, best hope of earth.” We wonder what he would say today.