Wake-Up Call

From the November 2005 Trumpet Print Edition

A critical American city lies deserted. A stunned nation has effectively witnessed the results of a major nuclear attack.

In an age of terrorism, who would have imagined that a tropical storm would launch the most effective tactical strike in American history?

Over 225,000 dead in the Asian tsunami last year did not spur us to brace ourselves for such a disaster in the United States of America. Now an entire city has been set back to pre-industrial conditions—so devastated that it will not support a population for months, if not years. And once the city’s infrastructure is resurrected, how many people will return? In the years it will take to restore New Orleans, many will have established new lives in areas that are not 30 feet below sea level

Experts hadn’t expected a city to fall in a storm; terrorism was the main fear.

Nevertheless, Katrina decimated New Orleans as surely as a nuclear strike. Up to 160,000 homes—unusable. The Mississippi River—the center of American commerce—closed to business. The city—virtually without inhabitant. Around it, an area the size of England lies razed, with hundreds of corpses lying in graves of splintered wood and noxious water.

What happened? 9/11 could be blamed on a handful of terrorists representing a radical global network. In this case, with the primary villain being a strong wind, culpability is harder to assign.

Nevertheless, accusations are flying.

The biggest target has been the U.S. government, which is under intense criticism for failing to respond with the speed some would have expected—if they had expected the disaster in the first place. Many have blamed racism for the sluggish reaction time—even, remarkably, for the disaster itself. Law enforcement has taken heat for failing to Control the criminal barbarism that overtook the city. Federal engineers have been lambasted for the deficient levees.

There is enough blame to go around to keep people arguing for years. But America is making a grave mistake if the only lessons we take from this disaster involve demanding more of our government.

Many say New Orleans’ destruction was only a matter of time. Sadly, it is not unique in that respect. In towns across the country, residents know that when the dam breaks, it’s time to head for the hills, assuming they can outrun the waters. Municipalities lie below sea level, tempting future tempests to sink them as well. Cities sitatop known fault lines. Los Angeles seems to have been positioned specifically to maximize its vulnerability to mud slides, forest fires, coastal floods, and seismic calamity caused by one of the worst fault lines on the planet.

But our environment poses only one set of dangers. We also have other humans to contend with. Islamic terrorists, for example, yearn to see another American city fall—or better, all of them.

One thing is certain: This isn’t the last mega-catastrophe we will witness.

When New Orleans drowned, the government was caught flat-footed. Despite years of advance warnings, no plan was in place to respond. This reveals the vital difference between knowing the worst could happen and actually bracing for it. We are similarly ill prepared for a major biological, chemical or nuclear attack.

And the plain fact is, no matter how impressive our plans, thorough our preparation or robust our defense, there could always be a climatic disaster strong enough, or enemy attack clever enough, to overwhelm us.

As we catalog and survey the overwhelming losses brought by a violent wind named Katrina, this cold reality is perhaps the last thing we want to consider. But the scope of this disaster demands that we dispense with fictions and soberly assess reality.

One of the most celebrated cities within the world’s greatest nation is gone, its entire population dead or displaced. We have crossed a threshold. We have gazed upon a city without inhabitant.

It is time to ask searching, fundamental questions.

Where was God? Why did He allow this? What is the purpose? How are we to respond?

The Gulf Coast tragedy is not about federal disaster management. It is a warning about what dangerous times we live in. It is a reminder of our own fragility, individually and nationally. It exemplifies our need for answers, and for protection—both of which can come only from God.