Saturday, October 14, 2006

Statistics and tragedies

Katrina wreckage

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 past
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.
This, 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?

Church off roadOf 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.


Blogger N.J.L.S. said...

I am currently writing my law review Comment on Katrina redevelopment, and in my rough draft, I was planning on including the following description of Katrina's damage:

"The force of the hurricane’s storm surge forced the Mississippi River to temporarily flow backwards, flooded 148 square miles of urban landscape, and elevated the water level in one lake more than eleven feet in nine hours. Katrina spread more than twenty four million tons of debris over the Louisiana landscape, submerged 350,000 automobiles, and damaged more than 60,000 vessels. More than fifty nine billion federal dollars have been committed post-Katrina redevelopment. Most troubling, Katrina took the lives of 1,464 individuals."

I continue to struggle as to how I can possibly impart the human toll of Katrina & Rita in a Comment that is geared towards addressing the Road Home program and its effects on Katrina's displaced residents. In my attempt to place Katrina's devastating impact in perspective, I reduced the death toll yet another statistic. Your posting motivates me to revisit this delicate issue, and I hope that other writers continue to keep this in mind when discussing the Katrina's impact on the Gulf Coast.

10/15/2006 12:38 PM  
Anonymous Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

'The human mind has a hard time grasping tragedy on a mass scale.'

Indeed, I've found this to be the case with regard to the Chinese famine of 1958-1961, with deaths numbering anywhere from 15 to 30 million (I suspect it's closer to the latter). Comparatively few people seem to know about this famine, and those I've informed about it react rather nonchalantly, especially in light of what we know about famine prevention and what occurred in this case (see Amartya Sen's Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Prevention, 1981):

'The Chinese famine of 1958-61 was closely linked with policy failures--first in the debacle of the Great Leap Forward, then in the delay of rectifying the harm done, and along with that in accentuating distributional inequalities through enhanced procurement and uneven sharing. The remarkable aspect of the famine is its continuation over a number of years without an adequate recognition of the nature of the crisis (and without leading to the necessary changes in public policy)' (Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, Hunger and Public Action, 1989): 211.

10/15/2006 2:19 PM  

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