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Thoughts on the first of two punchesLAST YEAR four hurricanes ravaged Florida between mid- August and late September. This year, two big blows have socked the Gulf states. For an up-close view, The Free Lance-Star 12 days ago sent reporter Rusty Dennen and photographer Rebecca Sell to hurricane-ravaged Louisiana. When they returned, they had scenes of disaster and stories of heartbreak branded on their memories, images no doubt hauntingly echoed in Texas this weekend.
"New Orleans was really bad and devastated, but everywhere we went was as bad if not worse," Mr. Dennen told the news staff after his return. Even the towns that weren't hit hard were functioning abnormally, he said. At every turn people's faces were graven with tragedy. But the two had little problem getting residents to talk. "I was surprised," said the reporter, "how many people wanted to open up and tell their stories. It was cathartic." The stories and photographs these newsgatherers transmitted back are gripping. And while it is too soon to fully analyze the "what went right and what went wrong" in the response to Hurricane Katrina, never mind her sister Rita, one may make a few early observations.
In nearly deserted New Orleans, "all the rules of society were suspended," noted Ms. Sell. Traffic lights, signs, and one-way-street markers were irrelevant. Armed police and soldiers, rescue workers, and a few outlaw bands were the only inhabitants. "Big Easy feels like Wild West," our headline said. Indeed, noted Ms. Sell, when "there are no rules, you just have to keep to your own standards."
She was speaking specifically of a news photographer's ethics, but the statement holds true in a larger sense. When the social framework collapses, only internal restraints on behavior remain. Thus, harassing the activities and institutions that teach morals and build character (e.g., the Scouts, houses of worship) is risky behavior on a societal level--unless you like being trapped with packs of human pit bulls.
Government response to Katrina from the mayor's office to FEMA was unreliable at best. Who could be counted on? Individuals. Nonprofits. Faith groups. Some corporations. From the doctors who flew to the area on their own to the George family from Stafford who simply loaded a truck full of supplies and drove it to the Gulf Coast, from those who brought half a million dollars and tons of goods to our radio stations' collection point to the churches who've sent mission teams to help rebuild, people have reacted nobly. The heart of America is strong.
With Rita's assault on Texas, this nation, still punchy from Katrina, faces another massive challenge. Americans likely will rise to meet it. But maybe the quote of the week belongs to comedian Jay Leno. On Tuesday he said: "Another hurricane! It's like the ninth hurricane this season. Maybe this is not a good time to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance."