The faces of disaster
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Aug. 31, 2005
The images were stunning: rooftop rescues, submerged casinos, a high-rise hotel bereft of windows, and the Superdome’s roof peeled back in places like a banana peel.
As the floodwaters along the Gulf Coast begin to recede, aid for the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina will begin to flow in.
Charities will send money donated by Americans whose emotions and morals were stirred by the plight of citizens who suddenly lost loved ones, homes, pets and all trace of modern convenience to Katrina’s lash.
Even larger amounts will flow from federal and state governments, doing what governments must do to cope with catastrophe on this scale.
Few Americans will begrudge the hurricane-haunted people of New Orleans, Mobile, Biloxi and Gulfport the dollars that will flow their way to undo the harm that hellish Katrina did.
Yet, sure as the sunrise, some of that money will be wasted. Some of it will go to help people who are, truth be told, of imperfect moral fiber. Some of it, in the sad way of the world, will be skimmed by profiteers who feast on others’ misery.
Yet no one will suggest those facts as reasons not to spend the money, just as no brave emergency workers declined Monday to rescue folks whose stubborn folly in ignoring evacuation orders left them in peril.
When lives hang in the balance, you don’t withhold help just because the people in trouble may have contributed to their own predicament.
In the midst of sudden, natural calamity, citizens of this nation are usually clear about that truth.
Why is it, then, that things get so muddy, so sour when the calamity that grips millions of Americans is man-made, subtle and slow-moving? Why, in those cases, are so many so slow to help, so eager to find excuses for inaction and to blame the victims?
Think, for example, of the scandal of the uninsured in this land. The U.S.
Census Bureau reported yesterday that, despite a decent economy, the number of Americans without health coverage rose again to an all-time high last year, to 45.8 million, up 800,000 over 2003.
This quiet calamity harms millions, as surely and as grievously as Katrina did. But it doesn’t yield dramatic rescue footage. It doesn’t entice CNN correspondents to yell into gale-force winds. Its dramas happen out of camera’s sight, in doctor’s offices, hospitals, workplaces, classrooms and glum kitchens.
Lack of health coverage costs people health, jobs, diplomas, quality of life and peace of mind. It’s the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in America.
It costs lives.
Yet the flood tide of the uninsured keeps rising, with no sense of national urgency. Political leaders do little, or even worse than nothing. Some of the “solutions” now in vogue amount to blaming the victim, as though wanting good health care were some kind of moral failing.
If only we could summon the better angels of our nature to cope with such man-made disasters as well as we do when it’s Nature, not politics, that deals out the damage.