Choosing to Care And Comfort in Katrina's Wake

By Donna Britt
Friday, September 9, 2005

Washington is a thousand miles from New Orleans, but most of us have at least one post-hurricane "memory," one scene that plays and replays in our minds.

For my friend Tony, it's "the dead-body thing," the bloated, rotting corpses that -- more than a week after the storm -- still float languorously, lie draped over curbs or are nibbled on by vermin on New Orleans's streets. These scores of untended bodies suggest "a complete breakdown in everything we are supposed to do as civilized people," Tony says. "Even on the frontier, in the wilderness -- when somebody dies, we stop to bury the dead."

Shouldn't finding the living supersede interring those who've died? "This is America," Tony says. "Don't tell me we can't accomplish both."

A Virginia transportation executive I know keeps remembering FEMA chief Michael Brown speaking of thousands of flood victims who "unfortunately" might have perished because they didn't heed evacuation warnings. "By and large," says the executive, "this was not people choosing to stay in their beach homes."

Then there was the image Sunday conjured by New Orleans official Aaron Broussard. His voice breaking, Broussard described an elderly woman-- the nursing-home-bound mother of a city manager -- who phoned her son daily from the facility where floodwaters had trapped her. "Is somebody coming?" she kept asking her son. For four days straight, he assured her that, yes, somebody was coming to get her.

"And she drowned Friday night," Broussard said, covering his face with his hand as he sobbed. "She drowned Friday night."

Of all the scenes that fueled my weeklong grief and outrage, the image of this trapped woman dying in increments, inch by inch, enveloped by fetid water as her would-be saviors blundered and bickered, is the most heartbreaking.

We all have mothers. Could someone let ours die needlessly, inch by excruciating inch?

It always comes back to us -- to the experiences we've had that determine our interpretation of others' losses, that suggest what our responses might be. We'd never steal -- unless stolen food and water was all we could get for our children. As mourners, we often avoid watching our loved ones' remains being lowered into their graves.

Could we imagine them being exposed, eaten by rats?

This is, as my friend says, America. How did we get to this place?

Katrina's destructiveness mounted with stunning, focused rapidity. But life often transpires like that elderly woman's death -- in increments. Piece by piece in New Orleans, disparate elements coalesced into tragedy:

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