Recently the east coast of the United States was hit with a hurricane and an earthquake. The midwest was hit with killer tornadoes, one that completely destroyed a town. The south has been in the midst of a record breaking drought. And through it all one consistent theme has been present. The parts of our country that were not affected have often reacted with ambivalence, and worse disdain, over the plights of their fellow citizens.
In 2005 I was chairman of a metro New Orleans area Chamber of Commerce. After Katrina destroyed the region we were still operable in part due to the fact that we were located 40 miles north of the city across Lake Pontchartrain. One of the first orders of business was to convene all the representatives of the other New Orleans area chambers and come up with a plan to get our member businesses up and running. My first recommendation was that we go as a group to Washington D.C.
A group called Greater New Orleans Inc. was the trip organizer. Before we left I made it clear that meeting with our state delegation should not be a priority. I felt we had to meet with congressmen and senators who were not from our area who served on committees that could assist us. GNO Inc was not successful in this endeavor. We did meet with a Mississippi staffer but they were hard hit too and were seeking their own monies and we met with the junior senator from Delaware’s staffer and that was uneventful as well.
The reason I was adamant about meeting legislators other than our own was that the national response to our tragedy was shocking. There were comments about how the city was being punished by God for its sins and that we didn’t do enough to plan for the storm, and that posssibly the city should not even be rebuilt because of it being below sea level and situated so close to the Gulf of Mexico.
The fact is no city or community is out of harms way. Many large California cities reside on fault lines. Southwestern communities can be ravaged by wildfires or drought. Metro areas near rivers can be flooded. People up north can be paralyzed by blizzards or ice storms. And tornadoes are a reality for anyone anywhere. Natural disasters such as these will exist as long as the earth revolves around the sun. What is startling to me is that, based on what is being written and said in the media , we are in so many ways no longer a “United” States of America.
Don’t get me wrong there was a lot of national response from outstanding and compassionate people from around the country after Hurricane Katrina, and their assistance with the rebuilding process was incalculable. But there were also strong factions that said that New Orleans should not be rebuilt. or worse, got what they deserved.
A month ago we watched a contentious congress spar along party lines to balance the federal budget. It made me reflect on the fact that our financial markets have still not fully recovered from the shock of our largest and most trusted financial service providers being consumed internally by greed. Greed is selfishness in it’s purest form. That greed has permeated our government and that has made the citizenry jaded.
I got a sense that those who had experienced the wrath of Hurricane Katrina were now feeling the effects of schadenfreude. The feeling that those on the east coast and midwest were getting what they deserved after having been insensitive six years earlier. That people scrambling from a Category 1 Hurricane Irene were in fact comical in their distress. This type of thinking is a result of dysfunction born of frustration. Frustration that becomes anger and when anger takes hold rationale thinking and sensitivity to others becomes jeopardized. Government failed during Katrina, it failed during the financial crisis, and now it is failing in the budget crisis. And when things fail people point fingers. And they become polarized. So polarized that when an Act of God occurs they use it as way to vent instead of being urged to show compassion and take action.
All of this has led me to fear that we are separating along party lines, ethnic lines, and geographical lines. One of my mentors, a lawyer and banker named Dick Knight, told me it was OK to disagree as long as you were not diasagreeable. But that doesn’t make for good television or good internet content.
Now I am not naive. I know that we have always had rivalries within our borders but there was still a sense of us. Perhaps instead of memorizing the Pledge of Allegiance we should start listening to the words more carefully. If we as citizens break that pledge that will be the worst natural disaster ever to hit this country.