Thinking With Katrina

August 29, 2005 | 35 comments
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While my brother and his family are safe in Texas, it appears that all of their possessions and their home in New Orleans will be under water soon. What I am hearing now is that about half of ‘well-contructed homes’ will be destroyed and the city will not be habitable for weeks. One million may be left homeless.

(1) Would we be right to see God’s hand in this destruction? I’ve spent some time in New Orleans recently, and it is full of the evil that conservatives love to hate (alcohol, ‘partying,’ immorality, drive-thru margarita bars) as well as the kind liberals love to hate (gross economic inequality and racism; to my knowledge, New Orleans is the only place in the US where private school is the norm even for the lower middle class because the schools are so poor.).

(2) I’m imagining my home under 20 feet of water. Am I too attached to my possessions? Am I complacent in the security of our home?

(3) This morning, I was explaining the hurricane to my kids, in the vaguely excited way only a homeschooler can. My four-year-old stopped me right in the middle of my comparison between New Orleans and Holland and insisted we pray that the levees won’t break. I was humbled; I felt faithless.

(4) I lived in Houston during hurricane Alicia in 1983. It is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. A 30 foot section of a tree in our yard snapped off, cleared the fence, and destroyed a neighbor’s greenhouse. At the same time, a cup that my mother had left in the yard was standing, half-full of water. We didn’t have power for about a week, and our street was flooded. (I also remember, as one of my earliest memories, the New England blizzard in 1978. My Dad was off work for a few days, and he pulled me around on a sled.)

(5) There’s something surreal about watching for and anticipating a natural disaster.

(6) Please pray for those who are in harm’s way.

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35 Responses to Thinking With Katrina

  1. Kim Siever on August 29, 2005 at 7:49 am

    (1) I had comments on this last year when someone brought up this very thing in a fast and testimony meeting in a branch I was visiting. That time it was Hurricane Jeanne.

  2. Lamonte on August 29, 2005 at 8:14 am

    Julie and Kim,

    I often wonder about the notion of natural disasters occuring according to God’s paln. We usually attribute that thinking to a form of punishment for decadent living. But in recent years I’ve changed my opinion and decided that if natural disasters are part of a divine plan it might just as likely be for the reason of bringing us all together. When is there greater evidence of the goodness of mankind than after a major disaster (the sunami in South Asia, earthquakes everywhere)? It seems to me that these tragic events bring out the best in mankind as many postpone their personal lives in favor of assisting others. I am in awe of the dedication of so many during these otherwise terrible times. And often the disasters occur just when we there seems to be other issues that divide the citizens of the world such as the current events in the Middle East.

    Maybe it’s just my attempt to be optomistic in a challenging time but it seems to me that God would more likely be striving to help us be better rather than punishing us for decadent behavior. He knows that our decadent behavior is punishment enough.

  3. J. Stapley on August 29, 2005 at 9:52 am

    It’s hard for me to mourn with people I don’t know…so I offer my prayers.

  4. D-Train on August 29, 2005 at 12:50 pm

    I don’t think it’s appropriate to speculate about whether divine retribution is at work here. I prefer to think about how the hurricane turned north just in time. Forty miles west and four hours earlier and there might not be a New Orleans. In the end, it doesn’t matter why this happened. Our obligation to help and to pray for those poor people is exactly the same.

    There’s nothing wrong with fearing for the loss of one’s home. Eternity is a bunch of little right nows.

  5. D. Fletcher on August 29, 2005 at 1:14 pm

    Julie, I don’t believe in divine retribution at all. I believe God weeps along with the rest of us. And nature isn’t evil, but it isn’t tameable, either. Perhaps God is saying, “I don’t care about those goings-on at Mardi Gras as much as you think, but I did tell you in that parable not to build your houses on sand, or in giant bowls which are below sea-level. If your houses are destroyed, you are not paying attention to my advice in these matters.”

  6. Adam Greenwood on August 29, 2005 at 1:22 pm

    D. Fletcher,

    How do you read 3 Nephi 9-10, or the multiple statements in the scriptures about increased earthquakes, floods, etc., as the earth grows more wicked in the last day? I share D-Train’s reluctance to decide that any one specific natural disaster is divine retribution but I can’t say that one can never conceptualize natural disasters as divine punishments/ wake-up calls.

  7. Adam Greenwood on August 29, 2005 at 1:24 pm

    The NT story of the blind man–“Whose was the sin? the man’s or his parents’? Neither, but he’s blind to show forth the glory of God” (I paraphrase)–and the frequent references to the Lord chastening those whom he loves are reasons why I’m with D-train, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with raising the possibility, like Julie in A. has.

  8. Bill on August 29, 2005 at 1:46 pm

    Adam, how do you explain that as we enter the “more wicked last days”, the number of people dying in natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, has been greatly reduced thanks to modern technology and warning systems?

  9. Steve Evans on August 29, 2005 at 2:27 pm

    “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with raising the possibility”

    I think there is. If you raise the possibility that a given natural disaster is God’s will and wrath upon the victims of the disaster, then you are making judgments (a) about God’s will and (b) about the victims. Unless you (or anyone else) are in a position to make definitive claims about (a) and (b), I believe it to be a form on unrighteous judgment to suggest that New Orleans hurricane victims deserve what they get. The only person on earth IMHO who can make such claims is the Prophet.

  10. Clark on August 29, 2005 at 4:19 pm

    It’s an interesting question. How do we tell what is or isn’t of God? In either direction. (Blessing or curse?)

    I’m open to prophets doing this, although even there I’m not convinced they are always doing so in an inspired fashion. Brigham Young and companies view of the Civil War being a great example – I think the Lord had a bigger vision than what they could see. Something that is easy to see now looking back but which wasn’t so easy at the time.

    That’s part of the problem with any judgment. Our perceptions are *so* limited, that at best we can’t even decide for years or decades later. I suspect that despite all our varying opinions now on such things as 9/11, Iraq and so forth, that how people will view them 20 years from now will provide a very different view.

  11. Clark on August 29, 2005 at 4:22 pm

    Just to add, I watched the NBC show on Hurrican Andrew last thursday. (I think it was last thursday) Anyway they had this very interesting narrative of children crying, “why is God doing this do us Mommy?” as they lay quaking in fear during the storm. Then about five minutes later, as they narrate people judging the storm, they talk about how it was a miracle more people weren’t injured, given the nature of the storm. Suddenly the narrative tone switches from blaming or cursing God to praising and blessing him.

    It really struck me and probably will stay with me for a long time. I’m just not at all convinced we’re able to discern much without God telling us anything. We just don’t have the perspective. And even when God does talk to us or inspire us, we’re given only a very small part of the picture.

  12. Julie in Austin on August 29, 2005 at 5:07 pm

    Uh-oh, I agree with Adam:

    “I share D-Train’s reluctance to decide that any one specific natural disaster is divine retribution but I can’t say that one can never conceptualize natural disasters as divine punishments/ wake-up calls.”

    But here’s the problem I run into: if we cannot say ‘this act was divine retribution’ then it isn’t a very good wake-up call, is it? What do you think here, Adam?

    OK, I’m also with Steve Evans, particularly because the poor bear the brunt of every disaster, and that’s the group God seems least likely to pick on. So . . .

  13. D. Fletcher on August 29, 2005 at 5:15 pm

    If you’re with Adam, AND with Steve, on this issue, then basically you’re with ME, Julie. We simply can’t call anything an act of God, because there are too many sticky doctrinal issues to work out, in particular, free agency.

    God may have organized nature, so that in the last days, there are more natural disasters to deal with. I read an article last year that suggested we are entering a new and more disastrous period of hurricanes — that they will come more frequently and more ferociously than we have known in the past. It’s a cycle of nature, but I’m more likely to believe God oversees nature on this large a scale, than He picks and chooses who he wants to punish with natural disaster.

  14. sambrown on August 29, 2005 at 5:49 pm

    Having lived through Hurricane Andrew in southern Lousiana about 10 years ago, I would say that an important reason for the damage is that the city is below sea level and on the coast of the gulf of mexico. To me it’s a (complexly) vital reminder of the peripheral nature of human settlements in the world and the persistence of human associations with their settlements, all reason and wisdom notwithstanding.

    And PS, it’s entirely possible that a higher proportion of New Orleans’ population will inhabit higher glory in the afterlife than say Federal Heights in Salt Lake or Bountiful, Utah. My memory of New Orleans is that there’s a lot of pain and poverty and suffering that has little to do with the individual exercise of agency. And however absolute truth is (and I do believe truth is absolute, depending on how you work out the capitalization) the ultimate calculus of the Christian Atonement is overwhelmingly relative.

  15. Adam Greenwood on August 29, 2005 at 5:56 pm

    “But here’s the problem I run into: if we cannot say ‘this act was divine retribution’ then it isn’t a very good wake-up call, is it? What do you think here, Adam?”

    Well, we’re talking about someone else’s wake-up call, so it isn’t for us anyway. If natural disasters strike your own people, God will let you know if it was a wakeup call if you ask. I’ve had personal disasters of one sort or another that the Spirit let me know were partially retribution.

  16. Julie in Austin on August 29, 2005 at 6:08 pm

    sam brown,

    this is a quote from one of my favorite books ;) :

    “Lack of familiarity with ancient cities can make verses 12–15 hard to understand. Consider the following:

    But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable in that day for New Orleans, than for that city. Woe unto thee, Provo! woe unto thee, Bountiful! for if the mighty works had been done in Berkeley and Las Vegas, which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it shall be more tolerable for Berkeley and Las Vegas at the judgment, than for you. And thou, Salt Lake City, which art exalted to heaven, shalt be thrust down to hell.”

  17. D-Train on August 29, 2005 at 8:32 pm

    Julie, thou art the funniest lass in all of Zion.

    The only point that I wanted to make above and wish to make now is that given the tragedy, it’s much more important to be compassionate and sensitive than to be “right”. Is Katrina divine punishment? I don’t know and you don’t either (“you” being an indefinite pronoun meant to address everyone equally). Even if you do, it’s much more important to respect the profound nature of this tragedy than to make some scripture-pounding point. If this is a matter that troubles you and yours (and I have no doubt that many of those that read this page were in the path of the storm, know someone that was, or feel impressed to consider the matter anyway), then seek personal confirmation.

    I think the harm in speculating about it is that we either have to share profound personal revelation or that we have to take an uninformed position. This isn’t an etching from Palestine or a discourse of Brigham Young. There are people whose lives have been torn apart. As a matter of theology and, much more importantly, humanity, our speculations should be kept to ourselves, at least until the dust settles and things are a little closer to normal. If we must take a spiritual lesson, let’s take Katrina as a startling reminder that things can fall apart in this life. Quickly. And the only way to escape that fate in our own lives is to make sure that there is plenty of oil in the lamps.

  18. D-Train on August 29, 2005 at 8:34 pm

    Not that sharing personal revelation is bad, but it strikes me that personal revelation in this case would be just that: personal and not meant to apply to others. I’d not want to be the guy that condemned a whole region without a lot of authority behind me.

  19. Mike on August 29, 2005 at 10:08 pm

    D&C 88: 90
    And also cometh the testimony of the avoice• of thunderings, and the voice of lightnings, and the voice of tempests, and the voice of the waves of the sea heaving themselves beyond their bounds.

  20. Mike on August 29, 2005 at 10:13 pm

    Aren’t we being a little too politically correct when we criticize someone for “raising the possibility” that any particular disaster may be a part of God’s retribution for sin? The most any of us can say is that it’s possible, but we don’t know. Raising the possibility provides the opportunity for us to analyze where we are personally and as a nation, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  21. annegb on August 29, 2005 at 11:34 pm

    And you guys, besides prayer, and sympathy, my heart goes out as well, but remember, no matter where you are, store water and your 72 hour kit. You might lose it, but you might not. And you will be glad.

  22. D-Train on August 30, 2005 at 12:00 am

    The problem for me is that the implication is that the people in the path of the storm were the “sinners”, the ones responsible. I see no problem with saying that the storm might be a sign of the last days.

    Also, just a thought: what would we say if the same thought had been raised vis-a-vis 9/11? Anyone that dared suggest that there was the SLIGHTEST possibility that 9/11 was partly a consequence of American foreign policy was immediately branded un-American by the vast majority of commentators and the public. My point is not that 9/11 was or was not related to any given policy or sin on America’s part, but that making that assertion at all is problematic, and depending on what the natural disaster/war/tempest is, different people get offended. It’s not about being politically correct, it’s about being sensitive. The same right to express opinions protects the right to assert that there is a time and a place for those opinions. It is my view that the time and place for that is not here and now.

    Bottom line, I don’t think that it’s a helpful line of discourse. Other good people might disagree. That’s fine.

  23. D-Train on August 30, 2005 at 12:03 am

    Also, any assertion that this is a judgment upon New Orleans/Mississippi/the Gulf Coast requires assuming a mantle that I believe none of us bloggers have.

  24. Ann on August 30, 2005 at 12:28 am

    When we were getting ready to evacuate – packing food for the trip to Houston, making lists, packing clothes, etc. – my DH left for an hour or so to help a single woman in our ward put up plywood over her windows. She had the wood, but it hadn’t been cut yet. So, he took over a table saw, and cut the wood, and put it up.

    One of the good things I will remember about this experience is my best friend, helping someone he doesn’t know very well with a boring task on a sweltering Louisiana summer day, because it eased her mind.

  25. annegb on August 30, 2005 at 12:32 am

    Yeah, I’m with D-Train.

    Ann, I’m glad you got out. This is very sad.

  26. Bryan on August 30, 2005 at 11:58 am

    I don’t think this was any sort of direct punishment for the specific area- more like a “sign of the times” end of the world kind of thing, a notice to the wicked in general of what is to come. People have been warned since the beginning that this kind of thing was going to happen, whether you live along the coast or over a fault or even in the supposed safest place in the world. For the sinners, it WOULD be punishment. For the righteous, a sign of what (or who) is coming and testing them to see if they will be faithfull through the adversity.

  27. Adam Greenwood on August 30, 2005 at 12:59 pm

    Right. If we’re taking this as a divine wake-up call, we ought to take it as a divine wake up call for all of us Americans. Maybe this is partly what it means to ‘mourn with those that mourn?’

  28. Tatiana on August 31, 2005 at 6:58 am

    Though I see the scriptural basis for this line of thought, I’m with those who find the idea that this could be divine retribution pretty ugly. Another idea I heard today that I also find ugly, “They are the weak. Only the strong survive.”

    Instead, with the understanding we have of weather patterns and the sinking of alluvial areas, I know we could predict this kind of thing and plan better for it. I read an article in Scientific American several years ago outlining exactly this scenario for New Orleans the next time a major storm hit. They described what could be done to prevent the devastating floods, and estimated it would cost a couple of billion dollars to accomplish. The problem was where to get the money. To me this is much more of an economic and engineering problem than a theological one. Had we spent the money up front, it would have been wise. Now we will spend more than that just in rescue and clean up efforts, and have to spend it again to prevent the next one. The loss of the oil infrastructure alone (and resulting higher gas prices) will likely end up costing the country much more than the heftier levees would have done.

    As a species, we need to stop having to learn every lesson like this the hard way. We can’t afford that any more. We have to use our resources more wisely. When these things are foreseen so very clearly, we need to go ahead and spend the money up front to head them off. We need to be willing to pool our resources and apply them where they’re needed most. So if this is a wake up call, I believe it’s one of our own making. Our own heedlessness and lack of wisdom (not foresight, for we clearly saw it coming), are what caused the disaster to be this bad, not divine retribution.

  29. jimbob on August 31, 2005 at 11:28 am

    This whole thread is unfair to New Orleans. I lived there for some time and will tell you that most of the eating, drinking, and merrymaking that seem to be the basis for the presumptions of its need for destruction are nearly always committed by someone who doesn’t live in New Orleans. People come from Omaha and Portland and Santa Fe to New Orleans so that they can do wrong things. All the people you see in the French Quarter? Mostly not from New Orleans. That girl that flashed the camera during Mardi Gras? She’s from St. Paul. In fact, outside of the French Quarter, Mardi Gras is probably the most family friendly holiday I know of, which is largely due to the fact that it’s mostly people from other places down in the Quarter, and mostly native New Orleanians out in the suburbs and Uptown. Which isn’t to suggest that New Orleans doesn’t have its problems–there’s widespread governmental corruption and the current looting was certainly to be expected, not to mention that New Orleans chooses to profit from having this atmosphere of drunkeness in its city. But how that somehow justifies the destruction of the homes of the vast majority who generally would not participate in this and are good and decent and family oriented people escapes me. Living in Dallas now, I’ll tell you that there are far more strip clubs–frequented mostly by Dallas people–far more porn shops–frequented by Dallas people–and far more rich people sticking their noses up at the poor. Yet somehow it escaped the flood waters.

  30. John David Payne on August 31, 2005 at 12:08 pm

    There are lots of places where people can contribute money or whatever to various charities who are helping the hurricane and flood victims. Here, for instance, is a list of organizations to which one can donate. Should our church’s name be on this list? I went to the church website and there is a little blurb about the disaster and the church’s response. But there is no mention of what individual church members can do to assist in that response, if they so desire.

    How can we help? Does anyone know?

  31. jimbob on August 31, 2005 at 12:34 pm

    RE 30: I only mention this because it was mentioned above. The first councilor in the Uptown Branch, which covers most of New Orleans itself, sent me the following mass email this morning, which I’ll edit for brevity:

    “My Dad and I are planning to go to New Orleans as soon as we are allowed back in by the government. They have declared martial law, so we can’t go back until they permit us entry. We are going to take chain saws, gasoline, swimming pools of bottled water, food, tarps, shotgun shells, spray paint, commercial carpet drying fans, wet vacs, bleach, a generator, work gloves, sunscreen, garbage bags, mosquito repellant, and any other thing that I can think of. I can’t really afford to buy all this stuff, but I will charge it if need be. Once I secure my property, I will immediately begin helping other members of my church and my neighbors with their recovery. If you want to help out immediately, you can donate money directly to me. I will post the receipts on my blog (wuapinmon.blogspot.com), and then donate any excess funds to either my church’s fast offerings (to be used to directly aid people) or the American Red Cross’s Emergency Disaster Relief Fund, according to your preference. You can paypal me the money at wuapinmon@hotmail.com or send the money to my parents house payable to John Williams, 3339 Galts Rd. Acworth, GA 30102. I am a graduate student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Tulane University. You can call me at 770-974-5909 at my parents’ house, or try my cell # which may or may not work at 504-812-0468. I will be putting the money to immediate use. Every penny of it not taken by Paypal as fees will go directly to buy supplies to take down there. This is not just for my benefit. A little donation will bless many. I would not ask you for money if I could afford to buy all these things myself. My student status keeps me in self-imposed poverty. ANY help is appreciated.”

    Basically, he’s saying that he will use the money to benefit the membership in New Orleans (most of which are quite poor), if you’d like to see the money used in a more localized and direct manner. I can vouch for him, if anyone is nervous about giving money to people they don’t know (although you don’t know me either, I guess). I can be reached at bbastian@pattonboggs.com. You can check my bio on the firm’s web site to see that I’m legitimate. This guy is big into eBay, which is why he already has a paypal account. Alternatively, I would suggest paying directly into the fast offering of the Uptown Branch (New Orleans Stake), the New Orleans First Ward (covers the suburbs in the New Orleans Stake), or the Chalmette Ward (Slidell Stake). From what I can gather from the News, those areas are the worst off as they are still flooding as the levy continues to leak. Most of the membership didn’t have cars, and many are now in some stake centers in Lafayette (70 miles west of N.O.) and beyond. The BP for Uptown Branch is David Van Dam, and the mailing address for fast offering funds is 3613 St Charles Ave., New Orleans, LA 70115. I can’t speak for the other units.

  32. Tatiana on September 1, 2005 at 1:15 am

    Will the mail be able to be delivered to New Orleans in the next few days and weeks? I don’t think I’d chance sending something snail mail to a New Orleans address. It sounds like all remaining people in the city are soon to be evacuated. I suspect that a check mailed to that address might sit unused in some holding bin in the post office until things are back to normal.

  33. Sara R on September 2, 2005 at 6:36 pm

    The Washington Post reports (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/02/AR2005090200824.html) that all 14 Marriott hotels seem to have no structural damage, while most of the floating casinos were severely damaged or destroyed. What more proof do you need? ;)

  34. Tatiana on September 3, 2005 at 10:24 am

    I’d like to offer housing in Birmingham, AL for any member family who needs a place to stay in the weeks or months after this storm. I’m a single sister who could accomodate up to a family of about 5, (if 2 of the kids won’t mind sleeping on cots). I have 3 guest bedrooms and one guest bathroom. I live in the Crestwood area convenient to downtown. My house is not handicapped accessible, and I have 3 cats. Public transportation is nearby but not copious. I think there may be one bus to town that runs each weekday.

    http://www.hurricanehousing.org/ This site is a place for people to offer housing to storm refugees in general, but I’d like to extend my offer specifically to Latter Day Saints.

    I emailed jimbob’s friend who is the first councilor of the Uptown Ward but he seems from his blog to have gone back home yesterday morning to begin cleanup, so it may be a while before he could have the opportunity to see it.

    I’ve also started a thread on the forum at Nauvoo.com here. http://www.nauvoo.com/ubb/forum/ultimatebb.php?ubb=get_topic;f=1;t=002002

    If anyone knows of a member family who needs housing, please contact me at TheTatiana AT gmail DOT com. Thanks!

  35. Julie in Austin on September 3, 2005 at 9:07 pm

    Follow up:

    I wrote this post late Sunday night. By the time I was up Monday morning and listening to the news, I felt a little sheepish for my doomsday-scenario post when it turned out that Katrina had, technically, missed New Orleans. Then, of course . . .

    (1) One data point that may help explain why more people didn’t leave: last year, this same time, there was an evacuation. The trip that normally takes 8-9 hours took my brother and his family 16 hours. If you were poor, even if you had a car, all that gas, all that sitting on the (what do they call those 20-mile long swamp bridges?) worrying that you’d get to spend the hurricane in your car over a swamp, hotel and food costs, lost work, etc., etc. I can perhaps sympathize with people who decided to try to ride this one out.

    (2) It appears from the satellite photos that there is less than one foot of water in my brother’s home, so they may possibly be able to salvage some things. My sister-in-law has a very large extended family in NO, all of which relocated safely.