02 September 2005

A first response to Katrina

The same set of friends with whom I was discussing haves and have nots are now, of course, talking about hurricane Katrina and its impact on the Mexican Gulf coast of the US. Not as volubly as before, though; there is a subdued air, with everyone saying only a minimum. As so often in such times, it has seemed that there is nothing I can usefully say: it's a time for doing, not saying. And, as in the aftermath of Sep 11, it seems particularly inappropriate for me to make facile comments among a group of friends who are predominantly US Americans.

One (and I salute his self honesty) recognises his own inability (which I share) to credit anything that Bush does. For any politician, either going to a disaster area or staying away will draw passionate criticism and distaste; but such times are for temporarily forgetting the past, forgetting how we got here, and looking to the immediate need. Bush is what the US has got, whatever anyone may think about that, and the important thing is to focus on urging him to do what is necessary now, not distracting him with criticism of what he's done or has not done in the past.

Having said that, there will be important lessons to be learned when there is time to think about them; that time just isn't yet. (Although Jim Putnam feels differently about this, that it may already be time.)

I also agree with comments from another correspondent, that nobody can really comprehend the scale of it. I heard one official (sorry, I don't have the name or office) from the affected area say "Nobody from the developed world can imagine what has happened to us. Those living in third world countries, perhaps; not those in any developed country." That's probably the truth. Perhaps I have more idea than most of how inadequate is my comprehension, having seen something of what catastrophic weather and flooding can do elsewhere. Truth is, though, that there isn't one disaster to be measured in such circumstances: there are many, many, all unfolding at the same time in different ways. There are immediate and intimate human disasters, there's a spreading set of social disasters, there are longer term human disasters, there's a whole class of political disasters, there's at least one national disaster, there's the web of financial and economic disasters to come.

One person wondered (and I don't misunderstand him; it's inevitable from within a US psyche in this moment, and shows his humanity) whether Katrina would produce the same outpouring of contributions from people around the world as did last Christmas's tsunami. As a nonAmerican I have immediate reactions to that but don't think I should, at this moment anyway, discuss it or air them in any detail ... the time is not right for that sort of thing yet, either. But, at the face value level, I doubt it, because it rarely does. The emotional response to the Boxing Day tsunami was unique – possibly because the news broke on Boxing Day, as a large part of the developed world (myself included) woke up from the previous day's overindulgences. In Bangladesh, six months before, massive loss of life did not elicit a comparable reaction; nor Bam's 2003 earthquake; nor the Mozambique floods of 2000; nor any of the other disasters on mind numbing human and social scales which happen with unnoticed frequency. This is not, I hasten to add, to make comparisons, even less to suggest that there were not outpourings of generosity on those occasions: but disaster doesn't usually elicit the particular global response which the tsunami produced.

And with that, I think I've said more than enough; time to know when I should keep quiet.

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