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Home » Archives » September 2005 » The Suffering of New Orleans

The Suffering of New Orleans

Sunday, September 4, 2005 Posted: 11:30 AM JST

Just like everybody else I have watched with horror at the images of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Especially the human dimension of the disaster. I feel terrible for the survivors and all the people who lost family, friends and their livelihoods. I feel terrible about the terrible stories about looting and gun play. It is impossible though, to understand from the news reports how pervasive the lawlessness is, and why it happened in the first place.

I compare these images with my experience of the earthquake around Kobe in 1995 and the difference couldn't be bigger. Windows of a big department store in my town were shattered and merchandise lay there in all its glory. It remained there until weeks later when the gaping holes were fixed. Around the corner from where I lived a grand villa with half a wall missing was filled with antique paintings and treasures. But nothing was taken. Personnel of the local supermarkets walked for hours to get to their destroyed work places with bags of food which they then sold. Often on the streets in front of the shops.

I realized then, and often mentioned this when I was interviewed, that civilization does not consist of buildings, roads and communication structures, all of which had been destroyed. It is something that lives in the hearts of the people. The buildings and such are just material expressions of it.

I covered large natural disasters in Taiwan, India and the aftermath of the tsunami in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Many many more people died there, they lost everything they owned. The difference between rich and poor are starker in these countries than in the US. Only in Sri Lanka was there widespread looting. So why then, the awful situation in New Orleans, I wonder.

This is a question that requires answers. Perhaps it is related to poverty, perhaps to race, perhaps it is lack of community. But we must find solutions to the issues that caused all the mayhem.

The International Herald Tribune carries an article today by Richard Bernstein about Europe's disappointment with the United States. A feeling that I share. The past few years US leadership has not lived up to the respect I have always had for the United States of America. This disaster exemplifies how the US appears to have floundered and lost its way.

I desperately hope the US can find its way again.

There is one more important issue that we must face.

A discussion about the role of global warming in this catastrophe has started to appear in the media. Commentators argue whether it played a role or not. Some blame President Bush for not signing the Kyoto Protocol.

I believe it is totally besides the point if global warming is in any way responsible or not. That is not to say that we should ignore it.

This terrible disaster has shown us how serious the social, economic and political consequences will be of global warming. If global warming is left unchecked we will have many of these kinds of disasters. If there is one thing that virtually all scientists agree with, it is that due to global warming the world's weather will throw us many huge challenges. We now know that even a rich and developed country like the United States will not be able to cope. Just imagine what happens when such disasters occur repeatedly on a worldwide scale.

In a way, Katrina has given us a peak of our future. It doesn't matter whether that future was responsible, or not, for allowing us that peek. We now need to heed the lessons.

The US decided not to sign the Kyoto Protocol because of its economic costs. After this week we know how much bigger the costs will be, especially in ruined lives, when we get many of these disasters. As we race to help the victims to live a normal existence again, we must finally heed the warnings that global warming has already given us in other places, and create a worldwide consensus on how to effectively fight this warning.

Global warming may not have caused the suffering of New Orleans and surroundings, but by learning from the mayhem we can prevent far worse things, yet unimaginable to us, from happening.

Keywords: opinion_item

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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
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