Depends whom you ask. All along the theological and political spectrum, Katrina has crystallized people's fears into a now-familiar brew of apocalyptic theories similar to what we saw after September 11 and after the Asian tsunami several months ago.
At least one New Orleans-area resident believes God created the storm as punishment because of the recent role the United States played in expelling Jews from Gaza. On Sunday evening, Bridgett Magee of Slidell, La., told the Christian website Jerusalem Newswire that she saw the hurricane "as a direct 'coming back on us' [for] what we did to Israel: a home for a home." Stan Goodenough, a website columnist, described Katrina as "the fist of God" in a Monday column. "What America is about to experience is the lifting of God's hand of protection; the implementation of His judgment on the nation most responsible for endangering the land and people of Israel," Goodenough writes. "The Bible talks about Him shaking His fist over bodies of water, and striking them."
Meanwhile, spiritual and political environmentalists say that massive hurricanes such as Katrina, along with the Asian tsunami, are messages from the earth, letting humanity know of the earth's pain. These hurricanes are caused by global warming, environmentalists say, which are the result of using too much fossil fuel. They see the catastrophic consequences as a kind of comeuppance.
Katrina forced oil workers to evacuate rigs in the Gulf of Mexico; meanwhile, seven oil refineries and a major oil import terminal have been closed. The Gulf Coast region is home to a quarter of U.S. oil refining. As a result, Common Dreams, a liberal website, wrote Monday: "Oil may be achieving a new impact on daily news, people's pocketbooks and world history--perhaps even the end of history and the world." James Howard Kunstler, author of "The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century," predicted in his Monday blog: "It seems possible to me that we will be seeing gas station lines all over America within the week." In another area of his website, Kunstler writes: "We are entering a period of economic hardship and declining incomes...The suburbs as are going to tank spectacularly. We are going to see an unprecedented loss of equity value and, of course, basic usefulness. We are going to see an amazing distress sale of properties, with few buyers. We're going to see a fight over the table scraps of the 20th century."
Stephen O'Leary, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and an expert on the media and apocalypticism, says, "God's got a two-fer here. Both sides are eager to see America punished for her sins; on one side it's sexual immorality and porn and Hollywood, and on the other side it's conspicuous consumption and Hummers."
In some ways, these are mainstream feelings: In a recent CNN poll, 55% of those responding believe that global warming is causing the severe weather we've experienced recently, which is a kind of admission that a huge hurricane is part of the wages of (environmental) sin. Meanwhile, most polls show that 40% of all U.S. adults believe the physical world will eventually end as a result of a supernatural intervention, perhaps with a literal Rapture, Tribulation, Antichrist, and Battle of Armageddon described in the Book of Revelation. Nearly half of all Americans believe the Middle East will be "heavily involved" in the events surrounding the end of the world. And 40% believe the end of the world will come in their lifetime.
The rush to doomsday thinking, O'Leary says, is related to our need to process emotion in the face of suffering. "The mass media confront us with emotion that is almost impossible to process, and the only way we have to deal with that is to put it in terms of the drama of apocalypse and redemption--you transform suffering into a story of God's plan. If you don't have that, then what you do is turn off the TV and have despair."
It's not just conservative Christians who tune in to this cycle of apocalypse and redemption, however. New Agers and left-wing environmentalists subscribe to a theory that the world is undergoing what they call Earth Changes--a time when, because of humanity's degradation, the climate severely reacts. Many of these believers say the United States will be almost completely submerged in seawater when the Earth Changes are complete.
"When people leave behind the Christian version of the apocalypse, they don't quit being apocalyptic," O'Leary says. "They switch brands."
Even the media, perhaps reacting to their own cycle of hype and emotion of this moment, have been priming the doomsday pump. The normally bloodless Associated Press wrote this description: "When Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans on Monday, it could turn one of America's most charming cities into a vast cesspool tainted with toxic chemicals, human waste and even coffins released by floodwaters from the city's legendary cemeteries."
Interestingly, last year's string of Florida hurricanes didn't seem to cause much doomsday rhetoric. But Katrina is different for a few important reasons: It's much larger than usual storms; it hit a region that is home to one-fourth of U.S. oil production at a time when Americans are feeling tremendous anxiety over rising fuel costs; it happened a couple weeks after Israel pulled out of Gaza; and it conjures horrific images of fetid water contaminating a city with a Sodom and Gomorrah reputation.
The thought of this region, or even the nation, being somehow punished for its sins, conjures twin feelings of excitement and dread among apocalyptic thinkers. On one hand, they seem delighted that a divine plan appears to be unfolding. With horrific events such as this, they believe, God (or Mother Nature) has shown them the world is so evil that it is closer than ever to the end of human history--which means they will spend eternity in a happier place. Yet they also believe God (or Mother Nature) is punishing Americans. That gives rise to their urgent need to stave off destruction through prayer, scolding, and trying to convert people to their way of thinking.
It's worth noting that end-times fever also broke out during the Persian Gulf War, around the turn of the millennium five years ago, and then around September 11, as it has many times in history. Each time it happens, Americans (and humanity for millennia before) become convinced the End is upon them because they've sinned and that God or Mother Nature is angry.
Yet if people actually read the Bible, they can just as easily find an alternate view of the divine, a view that is diametrically opposite the wrathful avenger. The Book of I Kings reads: "Behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind and earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice."