Hurricane Katrina, the largest natural catastrophe in American history, wrecked 90,000 square miles. The land mass approximates that of Great Britain. Destruction on that scale can scarcely be imagined.And that is precisely the problem.
"A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." Though Joseph Stalin probably did not utter this sentence, the observation rings true. The human mind has a hard time grasping tragedy on a mass scale. We have no trouble seeing a single image, mourning a single death. But numbness sets in quickly, and expanding the scale of a loss by orders upon orders of magnitude has the perverse effect of making us empathize less, not more.
A man of God told me once that forgetting tragedy is a gift from Providence. God loves us, so I was told, by letting us forget. At the time I agreed and was thankful. Now I wonder. Perhaps I am more readily persuaded that the human mind, vaguely aware of the limits on its own capacity for pain, quickly muddles the precision with which it absorbs images of tragedy.
Neither law nor anyone who cares to make good use of it can afford this indulgence. If law serves any valuable purpose, it must abjure self-anesthesia and confront the pain head-on. With apologies to T.S. Eliot:
Law present and law pastThis, at any rate, is how I feel one day removed from the conclusion of Tulane's symposium on the legal landscape of the Gulf South after Katrina. Our hosts, among many gracious favors, arranged for symposium participants to tour the most visibly damaged portions of the city of New Orleans and its environs. The sights, to say the least, are depressing. Nearly fourteen months after the storm, a majority of the city still lacks basic services such as water and electricity. Individual homes, not to mention neighborhoods, lie beyond repair. Among other things, we also learned that Orleans Parish has a mere 300 hospital beds. How indeed does New Orleans expect to return to "normalcy," whatever that idea can possibly mean now, and long will the city and its residents have to hike that road home?
Are both perhaps present in law future,
And law future contained in law past.
If all law is eternally present
All law is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
Of the places we toured, from Riverview and Gentilly to the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East, I was perhaps least prepared for the social wreckage of Saint Bernard Parish. Within the city of New Orleans, we saw much devastation, to be sure, but we saw individual homes being reclaimed or rebuilt. Businesses appeared, however slowly, to be returning. St. Bernard Parish seemed much worse off. Mile upon mile of basic economic and social infrastructure -- shops, schools, churches -- lay silent. Signs everywhere promise that the parish will be coming back. Absent the jobs, the lessons, the social interactions that this infrastructure once provided, I seriously wonder whether anything resembling St. Bernard before Katrina will ever again rise in this very low-lying parish between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.
Go see New Orleans. It has staggered to its feet, and the city's unique spirit truly is returning, bit by bit. But take the time too to see the ruined parts of the Gulf South. Reducing the many individual tragedies of Hurricane Katrina to statistics, and thereby numbing our ability to empathize with the storm's victims, would represent a new tragedy in its own right.
Acknowledgements: The image atop this post comes from In Katrina's Wake: Portraits of Loss from an Unnatural Disaster, which combines photographs by Chris Jordan with essays by Bill McKibben, Susan Zakin, and Victoria Sloan Jordan. Tulane's symposium organizers graciously gave be a copy of this book, which I intend to review often, the better to remember the individual tragedies that the storm brought -- and the better to work toward delivering relief, however intangible and modest it might be.