Thursday, September 01, 2005


The news and video about Hurricane Katrina are unbelievable. One story said this is the most significant event in recent U.S. memory aside from 9/11, and I don't think that's an exaggeration. The destruction sounds comparable in some ways to Hiroshima, though of course without the radiation, thankfully.

Hearing about Katrina makes we wonder how I would react and what steps I would take if I were in that situation. Suppose I were stuck on a New Orleans rooftop with Sarah and Becky and Ben, or even on a piece of dry land? What could I do to get everyone to safety? How far could we carry the children? How would we find food and water? How long would we have to walk? Could we find a boat or a wagon to help us? And what would happen if we encountered looters or robbers? Could I myself steal things or commit an act of violence if I needed food or water or clothing? Probably.

It's fascinating to speculate on how individuals and society would cope with a disaster and the sudden, total breakdown in social fabric that accompanies it. I guess this explains my interest in disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake (which depicts a pretty similar level of devastation to what we're seeing after Katrina), and Threads, a terrifying yet not sensationalized imagining of England just before and after a global nuclear war. Malevil by Robert Merle imagines a similar situation in France and how survivors reorganize themselves in a new world without police, government, technical experts, etc. Merle shows the basic human instincts rising to the fore -- after assuring physical survival, people start having power struggles and tribal warfare and eventually figure out how to make weapons.

I imagine some of the looters in New Orleans are taking stuff they need to keep going, but I read that many are going for the non-necessities like TVs, or trying on several pairs of shoes in stores to get the correct size, or are taking only the brands of makeup they prefer. It's another illustration of just how thin the veneer of civilization is, and how people under even moderate stress (physical, emotional, economic) will abandon any sense of community or personal ethics to get what they need or want. I'm constantly amazed at the contrast between how much the species has accomplished vs. how close we still are to an "animal" state. We've learned about how the universe and life itself began, explored other planets, developed amazing feats of surgery, created sublime works of art, etc., yet we're also constantly trying to satisfy our basic drives for survival and pleasure. And when we're not actively chasing after food, sex, shelter, etc., we're thinking about it. And if we're not hurting anyone else in the course of these pursuits, it's only this thin veneer that prevents it. So am I a total cynic or what? :-)

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