Humanity was most fragile of all

Of Hurricane Katrina it has been said that her destruction was of biblical proportions. Since the devastation hit a week ago, it is a biblical verse that has seemed to put some proportion around what happened on the Gulf Coast. Psalm 103: As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.
October 7 th 2005

To many of us Hurricane Katrina's damage to New Orleans is already history but for those who reside in Louisiana and the millions that are self-sacrificially assisting them the pain still lingers and the challenge is far from overcome. The physical devastation of Hurricane Katrina is almost incomprehensible, with billions and billions of dollars required to rebuild not just immediately but for years ahead. However, what caught my attention more profoundly than all the physical damage (not to mention the finger-pointing between the various levels of government) was the human failings and lack of character that became so apparent in this Louisiana disaster. No one captured this better than Father Raymond J. de Souza and with his permission we offer you a reprint of this article that first appeared in the National Post, days after the hurricane.

—David Sweet, Vice-President: Business Development

The photographs from the Gulf Coast this past weekend showed the tiniest bits of normalcy returning here and there, in fits and starts. In places I saw pictures of small congregations going to church—or more precisely, to where the church used to be. I caught on television what appeared to be an Anglican bishop, rather beautifully arrayed (the vestments must have been stored safely) and sitting in a lawn chair, the church in splinters around his feet, a card table set up as a makeshift altar.

Of Katrina it has been said that her destruction was of biblical proportions. Since the devastation hit a week ago, it is a biblical verse that has seemed to put some proportion around what happened on the Gulf Coast—perhaps it was used at this past Sunday's services. Psalm 103: As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.

The psalms are the prayer book of the Jewish people, giving poetic expression to the various conquests and calamities that have marked their chosen-ness in history. And it is that line about the sheer fragility of man and all his works that so suits this past week—for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.

Indeed, the wind passed over New Orleans, and Biloxi, and Gulfport, and its place knows it no more. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour put it pithily on the first morning after: "[The buildings] are not severely damaged; they're simply not there."

How fragile and transitory it all is. The wind blows and the place no longer even remembers what was there. It is simply, utterly, totally, gone.

It is a common experience on the expanding perimeter of growing cities that former residents come back in wonder at the new subdivisions, the cookie-cutter houses and the big-box stores, and wonder if the place even remembers the farms, open fields, trails and woods that used to be there. We are used to man shaping nature. What we don't often see is nature reshaping it back.

The desire to leave a mark—if only a tombstone—is natural enough, so that the place remembers those who passed there. Over centuries, the place knows no more those who passed by, and thoughtful souls have always regarded the long march of time as the ultimate undoing of all human ambition.

The wind that blows over centuries is barely perceptible. The wind of the hurricane does its devastating work overnight, and in the morning the reality pondered by philosophers becomes the wreckage of the lives of the ordinary man in the street. Except there is no longer any street. The place knows it no more.

The most important things man builds are not buildings, or boats, or even houses and causeways and levees. There is another labour, in which the architects are the theologians and scholars, the seekers and dreamers, the poets and composers, and the builders are the parents and teachers and coaches and clergy. It is the work of the heart, the education of souls, the construction of character.

It is that labour which is supposed to endure. When the winds blow, the house built on the solid rock of virtue is not swept away like the house built on the shifting sands of selfishness.

Yet that labour too took a beating in the days after Katrina. The stories of looting, beatings and gunplay were literally demoralizing, even as the physical destruction was devastating. Were the hurricane winds sufficient to blow away basic decency and civility? Were the simple tenets of morality among the things that the place knows no more?

That buildings are fragile in the face of the storm is not a surprise. But is our civilization so fragile as to put women at risk of being raped amid the fetid squalor of the shelters? What lurks in the heart of a man who would rape a hungry, desperate woman in her hour of need? Does our culture produce men of such little virtue that the winds of destruction flatten also the most basic rules of morality? Perhaps, in the tumult and turmoil, one might understand, if not excuse, the looters who took the televisions and furniture. But the rapists? In due course, perhaps New Orleans will be rebuilt. But what kind of rebuilding project can restore the heart of a man who took the hurricane as an opportunity to let loose depravity and violence?

Over the weekend the too-fragile levees that protect New Orleans were already being repaired. Years from now, we shall likely forget how fragile indeed are the things that man builds. But we shall be haunted for some time by the other news from the whirlwind, that more fragile still was our culture, our civilization, our common humanity.

Topics: Culture
 

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium, chaplain at Newman House (the Roman Catholic centre at Queen's University), a parish priest, and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register.

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