Hello. I’m a New Orleans native. And although I was on the North shore of the city during Katrina (an area colorfully referred to around here as the Northshore), I don’t refer to myself as a “Katrina survivor.” My relatives and I went through one of the most horrible experiences of our lives, but we didn’t have flooding of any kind, so we kinda feel like we got off easy. I do, anyway. So even if I wanted to compare disasters — no one should, by the way, they’re like individual fingerprints on the corpse of a bad idea — what I’m here to tell you is this: Sandy belongs to you.
This might not seem to be news to the actual survivor mucking out his basement or grieving over his favorite uncle or rebuilding his home. To those people, Sandy is already personal. But there are lots of other folks, usually acting on behalf of institutions, who have already tried to take a piece of the hurricane for themselves, to use the “super storm” as a metaphorical battering ram, or housekey. This is not a Republican disaster. This is not the Democrats’ storm. This hurricane does not belong to Fox News or The New York Times or Bill O’Reilly or Anderson Cooper. It’s not Karl Rove’s disaster, or Mitt Romney’s. It’s not Obama’s ticket to the White House. It’s not his, or anyone else’s, Katrina. This storm does not even belong to Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel, or FEMA, or the Red Cross, or even climate change scientists or the National Weather Service.
It didn’t happen to them, and even if their lives were touched by it, so was yours. Disasters are personal. Sandy, like it or not, belongs to you.
Hey, New York. You already know about this from eleven years ago. Remember? We all came together as a nation after that. For about two weeks. Ever since then, we’ve been more divided than ever. Katrina captured the sympathy — and the hours and hours of hard work — of the nation. For which we are forever grateful. But we got used, too. And it’s worth noting that he US still has bases in the Middle East, and a new, equally giant target for terrorists to to hit in some other way in lower Manhattan. It’s also worth noting that we haven’t done anything about the eroding coastline in Louisiana, or the fact that the canal levees that criss-cross the city still don’t have adequate protection.
A lot of things will be sold to you based on this disaster, and I’m talking about ideas, which are both more powerful and easier to manipulate than plywood or batteries. The psychology of this advertising is that sense of community you feel right now, when you’re frightened and tired and vulnerable and needing to feel a part of something. Some of these people have a honorable intentions; many do not. Your job as a human being is to figure out what Sandy means to you, you personally, then to take that and figure out what it means to that big community, the whole community of man, because that’s the only thing you have any real membership in. None of America’s tragedies ever came about because we were too integrated as a people; they happened because we not only let those in power dictate our safety, we let them dictate our emotions.
You’ve heard about the butterfly that flaps its wings in one corner of the Earth and causes a hurricane across the globe? Guess what: you’re the butterfly. You’re not powerless. You’re part of a giant organism simply because you’re here — not just your neighborhood or city or region or even country but humanity and the planet it lives on. If we can find a way to prevent the Black Plague or World War III, we can prevent things like this. But you have to be thinking about it. Thinking is the primary function that keeps us all from literally being slaughtered like animals.
You and I, all of us, allowed this to happen by giving power to people with the wrong priorities. And the reason horrible and grand events like these keep happening is that these are the very same people who control your response to what happened. You are responsible for the big picture just as much as any Governor or President. Merely paying your taxes is apparently not enough to ensure hurricane protection. Having a military is apparently not protection against terrorism.
The only solution is to throw your mind into the equation. Attend board meetings. Protests. Shelters. Don’t just make sure you have enough gas; think about where the gas comes from, and why you need it. Don’t just buy a flag; practice citizenship. Don’t just text donations to the Red Cross; learn first aid. Don’t just vote; organize. Don’t just wear ribbons; go to a funeral. Don’t assume everyone in charge has the best interests of where you live at heart.
It’s not enough to just be reactive any more; the 21st century is too dangerous for that. Allowing your opinion and your reactions to be shaped by the media, corporations, and government — those with the real capacity to effect immediate change — is the surest way to create another disaster. There has to be a fundamental change in human thinking, and it has to occur on the individual level, on the ground, and trickle up. You, as a survivor, need to think hard about your own role in society. Rebuilding is not enough; we have to reshape.
So don’t let them sell you a phrase, a speech, a slogan, a t-shirt. Remain vigilant against any method of mind control, no matter how seemingly benign. It’s pretty obvious we have a bad relationship with the stewards of society, and like any bad relationship, we’ll just keep having more if we don’t ask ourselves why we let this happen in the first place, what was missing inside ourselves that we needed someone else to fill. Don’t let anyone tell you what this means, not even some powerless blogger like myself.
Above all, don’t suffer in silence. Train yourself to contemplate painful things. Don’t give that right to someone else. They will abuse it. And we’ll all be right back here again, wondering why.