Was Hurricane Katrina wholly a "natural" disaster? Was human action in partresponsible for the catastrophe that destroyed a city?

Let us recall a Torah passage that is raised up in traditional Jewishliturgy as the second paragraph of the Sh'ma, the affirmation of God'sUnity. The passage reads (Deut. 11: 13-21, following and revising the Everett Foxtranslation):

"Now it shall be--
If you hearken, yes, hearken!
To My connection-commitments
to which I connect you today,
To love YHWH/ Yahh/ the Breath of Life
and to serve Yahh with all your heart and every breath,
I will give forth the rain of your earth in the right time,
Rain like arrows in its time
and the gentler later-rain as well,
And you shall gather in your grain, your new wine,
and your glistening olive-oil;
I will give forth grassy-eating in your field,
for your animals;
So you too will eat and be satisfied.

"Take care!
Lest your heart be seduced,
So that you turn aside and serve after-thought 'gods'
and bow yourselves down to them,
For then the heat of the Breath of Life
will flare up against you
So that the Breathing-spirit of the world
shuts up the heavens [as CO2 becomes scorching]
And there is no rain [or it smashes your levees and drowns your cities]
And the earth does not give forth its yield,
So that you perish quickly from off the good earth
that YHWH, the Breath of Life, is giving you!"

And in sum, the passage continues:

"If we can teach the Unity of all life to ourselves and our children;
if we can awaken our minds and our hearts, our eyes and our hands, ourdreams and our efforts, to the Wholeness;
if we can remember that only the Great Flow of all life is worthy of
worship, not carving out of it our own idols, godlets of greed and ambitionand hurry and Control--
Then earth will be heavenly in all its earthiness, a garden of sustenanceand delight.

"But if not. "

The New Orleans Catastrophe has lit up our society like a continentallightning flash, revealing what was always present but hidden from us. Letus look at the specifics:

1. When money was needed to shore up the New Orleans levees before disasterstruck, the money was cut from flood control funds to spend on the Iraq war.

2. When it would have been crucial to use the Louisiana and MississippiNational Guards to evacuate people and keep order, two-fifths of them werefighting in Iraq.

3. When, decades ago, preservation of the Louisiana wetlands was crucialbecause they absorbed the rain of hurricanes, they were destroyed in orderto drill for oil.

4. When scientists warned again and again that pouring CO2 into theatmosphere was heating the earth and oceans and could spawn more hurricanesof ferocious intensity, their warnings were scorned and the hyper-use of oilcontinued.

5. When evacuations were ordered, no one bothered to provide the means forhundreds of thousands of Orleanians (mostly black) who were too poor to owncars or to have credit cards or to connect with faraway friends or to buyextra food to pack in middle-class back packs. So many of them died, manyof them sickened from hunger and thirst and the poisons released into waterand air.

Each of these failures was rooted in human arrogance--arrogance towardthe earth and its oceans, toward the poor and people of color. Each was rooted in aform of idolatry, of carving out from the Unity, the Universal Flow of life,some partial piece and worshipping that piece as if it were the Whole.Elevating into godlets our own pride, greed, ambition, domination--andbowing before them.

As the Torah passage teaches, doing this brings upon us a disaster in theorder of nature. Doing this disorders the rain and the wind and the warmththat bring us prosperity, bring us our food, our homes, our jobs, ourcities. The process by which Pharaoh's oppression brought on the Ten Plagues, the Ten Eco-disasters, was not a miracle, not weird. It was the orderedresponse of an orderly world to the disorderly acts of those who heldunaccountable power.

We label the Katrina disaster "natural" in order to hide from our owncomplicity. Especially to hide from the complicity of those with greatpower. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, "In a free society, some areguilty; all are responsible." To shoulder our own responsibility requiresthat we also discern who is guilty.

In most of these actions that made a problematic storm into a continentalcatastrophe, the key element was the addiction of American society to oil.The Iraq war, the destruction of the wetlands, the heating of the Gulf sothat a storm took on ferocious strength -- all born from addiction to oil,and from the arrogance that both nourished and grew from the addiction.

Addiction = idolatry.

Its only cure is connection with Wholeness. Turning from arrogance tocompassion. Not only the instant compassion of feeding the hungry, housingthe homeless--but also the deeper, the longer-range compassion of healingthe earth, sharing our wealth, rebuilding so that the poor are not isolated,not made invisible.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus