Michael StipeMichael Stipe is best known as the lead singer of the popular band R.E.M., but recently, he's been focused on the ongoing devastation in the Gulf Coast region. To raise money for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, Stipe recorded six versions of the song "In the Sun," by singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur. For some of the versions, he was joined by other stars, such as Chris Martin of Coldplay and Justin Timberlake. All six are available for download on iTunes, with all the proceeds going to Mercy Corps.

In January 2006, Stipe traveled to New Orleans and returned shaken by what he saw. Several weeks later, he spoke to Beliefnet about the trip, his efforts on behalf of Katrina's victims, and the role of God and faith in natural disasters and their aftermath.


Why are you doing this fund-raising project now in particular?
When we first started working on the project, a lot of people who were working on it were thinking, myself included, that we need to get this out as soon as possible because it will be a moot point after a couple of months. Of course, the Gulf region will be cleaned up, and people will be moving back into their homes. As it turns out, six months later, it's still pretty cataclysmic what's happened down there, and there's not a lot of progress in terms of the response.
You've referred to the disaster as "Old Testament" in its scope. What did you mean by that?
I followed the story like we all did on TV, and the images we all saw in the first weeks after Katrina. And it was devastating to see. Television and photographs have an abstracting quality, whereby you can see something and feel like you've experienced or feel the emotional impact of having seen it. But honestly, having been to New Orleans since Katrina, nothing can prepare you for what it's like still, and that's the real shock. I really felt like it was biblical in proportion. It was like something out of the Old Testament. There was ruination down there that I've only seen in Pompeii.
Were there one or two images in particular from that visit that stuck with you?
A haunting image of devastation
There's an image that really, for whatever reason [stuck with me]--maybe, I'm a poet, that's what I do, I write lyrics, I think a lot, I'm an artist--in the lower 9th Ward. For miles, there's nothing but people's entire lives laying in the mud. And it's where the levee broke, and--it wasn't reported much--a barge blasted through the levee, and the water was, I think, 30 feet tall, taking out an entire neighborhood. So all these people's stuff is still there. There's trees standing. There's not much else. The trees are dead from the water. All their things are laid out in the mud. As a photographer and someone who wanted to document this, I couldn't take pictures of it. It was too personal and too real to even photograph.
But the image that really struck me was: Maybe three or four blocks from where the levee broke, there's an 18-wheeler truck. And mind you, you're standing and you look completely around you, and all you see is devastation, and not a bird, not a dog, not a human being. The roads are barely passable by cars six months later. And there's an 18-wheeler truck that's turned upside down and someone's couch is perched on top of it. Now, in six months, no one has gone and thought, This might fall on somebody, we should at least go and push the couch off the top of this overturned 18-wheeler. That image, to me, was maybe the most powerful.
After Katrina, there was a sense in this country that this time we wouldn't drop the ball and lose interest after just a few weeks, but it seems that we have. Why do things fade out of consciousness that quickly, and what can we do to fix that?
Stipe, wearing a gas mask during his visit to New Orleans. Photo courtesy Mercy Corps
There's a lot of things coming at us all the time, it's really hard to focus on what's real and what's important. So I don't know that we're necessarily callous people or that we have as a nation a low attention span. It's just the inundation of information, and I think that affects your ability to prioritize what is really important.
You combine that with the abstraction that occurs with seeing things on television, and it would be easy to dismiss something, or to think, "Of course the government's taking care of it. Of course these people have places to stay. Of course, their lives are slowly, perhaps, coming back together." And having been down there and seeing it, and having recognized that there's nothing black and white, there's nothing simple about what's going on there, I'm here to tell you that that's not the case. People are desperate.
I admit to being among those who assumed that things are improving.
It's not moving anywhere close to as fast as it should. There's some million-and-a-half people displaced by this hurricane, and people are still looking for family members. People have family members missing, who are probably still in the houses, and it's tragic to me that someone would have to return to not only a destroyed home, but to find one of their loved ones laying on the floor, dead, having been left there for five months or six months.