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What Can We Learn From Katrina?

Mal Fletcher
Posted 22 September 2005
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I write this while on a plane en route from Washington to London. For much of the past week I waited with the residents of Virginia Beach, on America’s east coast, for the arrival of Hurricane Ophelia, perhaps the little sister to Katrina.Thankfully, this particular hurricane moved out to sea before it had a chance to cause severe damage.

The atmosphere over those days of waiting could perhaps not be called tense as such. This is, after all, the hurricane season and the predicted force of this hurricane was not as great as others that have moved through over the years.

Yet people were watching TV forecasts closely. Perhaps more closely than usual in light of the horrendous events surrounding Hurricane Katrina which devastated so many lives in New Orleans and other southern centres.

Now there is talk of even further damage to these areas from a new and potentially more devastating hurricane.

More than one million people in Texas and Louisiana are being evacuated in anticipation of Hurricane Rita which has been designated a level 5 hurricane – the highest category available to weather forecasters.

It seems almost gratuitous now to write again the statistics surrounding Katrina’s impact. So much has already been said and a final reckoning of the human and economic toll will not be available for some time.

Thankfully, the death toll figures now seem inclined to be much lower than some early projections suggested.

It is difficult to write about events of this magnitude without sounding trite, but perhaps we can learn some valuable lessons from Katrina.

It may be that, at the scientific level, meteorologists will discover something valuable; something which will help human populations to better prepare for such events in future.

At the political level, there is certainly much to be learned from the aftermath of Katrina: in terms of the logistical arrangements needed to face such events.

Politicians from both political parties, at both national and local levels, were caught ‘on the hop’ by Katrina’s impact. It is a mistake they are evidently and predictably anxious not to repeat in the face of current and future threats.

Any lessons learned at either of these levels might be of great benefit in future to people living in hurricane in affected areas -- and not just in the USA.

For those of us who, thankfully, live well away from the threat of hurricanes there might also be lessons to be learned.

We might, for example, reflect on the frailty of the human condition and the vulnerability of the social order in which we put so much faith every day.

The first casualty in the communities affected by Katrina was trust. The disaster not only inspired a culture of blame among civic leaders; it also led to mistrust among people who had previously been neighbours.

Social order is a thin veneer at the best of times and never moreso than when people are struggling to hold their emotions and families together, trying desperately just to survive.

We normally go about our daily lives assuming that certain constants will remain, well, constant. We set out to make a positive contribution in our work and enjoy our time at play, without giving much thought to what happens if our sense of normality should be disrupted.

In fact, our 'normal' world can be turned on its head with surprising suddenness. Sadly, the London bombings, last year’s Asian tsunami and the recent hurricanes have all served to remind us of this fact.

It is during these times of shock or unexpected hardship that we need to have as our bedrock something more firm than daily routines or social networks.

The biblical apostle Peter, the men who knew much about suffering, reminded us of the fickleness of life in this fallen world. ‘All men are like grass,’ he wrote, ‘and all their glory is like the flowers of the field…’(1)

Peter also offered a word of hope to those who must endure the unexpected. ‘The grass withers and the flowers fall,’ he continued, ‘but the word of the Lord stands forever. And this is the word that was preached to you.’

The word of the Lord to which he refers it is, of course, the Christian gospel, the good news about Jesus.

There are times when only faith in the unseen can lift us above the troubles we see; when pnly trusting the intangible can carry us through the pain we feel so strongly; when only hope born of spiritual assurance can help us overcome natural insecurity.

Faith is not blind trust: it is trusting in something which cannot be seen yet is nevertheless very real -- the integrity, character and compassion of our God who is, according to Jesus, first and foremost a Father.

In the face of disasters like Katrina, people on the ground need more than platitudes about faith. They need help just to make it through each day. It’s the same for any of us who are faced with a sudden shock.

Faith on its own will not be enough to keep us alive or to protect our families in an emergency situation; we will need natural answers to immediate needs. But faith will surely carry us through the shock and trauma which can threaten to last much longer.

Once our immediate needs are met, a sense of frailty will often remain – unless our lives are rebuilt on a faith in something greater than ‘business as usual’.

Strong and lasting hope is born when our faith is in something greater than everyday routines and what we call normality.

(1) 1 Peter 1:24-25 (New International Version)

What’s your view?

Does spiritual faith help people to deal with the aftermath of personal shock or natural disasters?



Keywords: Hurricane Katrina | Hurrican Rita | New Orleans | Washington | social comment | faith | Mal Fletcher | USA

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