A test of values
What on earth are we here for?
Here is a simple test: Make a list of the elements of your life that receive the greatest concentration of your passion, hard work, creativity, resources, and dreams. Circle anything that has the potential to survive the ravages of natural disaster, terrorist attack, or economic collapse.
Some of us, I fear, are guilty of confusing liberty and the pursuit of happiness with material well-being. Some have even equated faith with affluence.
Tell that, if you will, to the hundreds of thousands on the Gulf Coast who now have nothing more than the clothes on their back.
Derek Maul, writer
In the days following Katrina, I've heard the R-word - racism. I'm struck by how ineffective it has become. At best it seems to strike wounded pride in most people; it certainly doesn't spur social development as it once did.
Perhaps 30 years ago, white America decided it wasn't racist anymore. But, in a way, don't we still practice racism?
We don't make people enter the back door of the shopping mall, but we go to different malls when they come there. We don't hang people from trees anymore, but we move to suburbs when they move into our neighborhoods. We don't close their schools, but we accept policies that cut education and day-to-day stipends that would, along with a job, help them to make better lives for themselves.
Mike Whalen, tech support provider
Time was, we all agreed on the classic American myth: in the land of opportunity, a heroic individual pulls himself up by his bootstraps and makes good. Then, in a time of crisis, this individual acts decisively, rallying the community to rid the land of corruption, repel a foreign enemy - or heal us from a natural disaster.
According to the Red Reality, there was no heroic response this time because the hurricane was just too powerful and local officials were incompetent. According to the Blue, the corruption in federal government was too powerful for the benevolent community to do any good.
We can always hope that if the myth never recovers, at least the survivors of Katrina will. Survivor stories bolster our faith in heroic individuals, and the benevolent community is springing into action.
David Frauenfelder, instructor
My family and I split town at the crack of dawn on the Sunday before Katrina hit and headed for Baton Rouge. By mid-week, my hometown was a paradise lost. While some were looting luxury items for fun, many were looting food and water just to survive. If I were in their shoes, I wouldn't hesitate to do the same.
Even in our cozy and comfortable refuge, tempers are on edge. We sleep on the floor, we cry, we search for just the slightest bit of privacy and just a sense of normalcy.
Craig Guillot, freelance writer
There is a minimum threshold, above which downtrodden people will turn to rage. In Gabon, pricey anchovies can bring civilized men to combat. What fury might we expect when the lower threshold is not protein sustenance, but faultless cellular networks, cold beverages, and fast food?
Mob flash points in exotic lands always perplex Americans because they are not acquainted with privation and suffering. But in the rest of the world, looting, rioting, and violence are common responses to the kind of extreme loss Americans are suffering. In a country of air conditioning and buffet menus, the people's inalienable rights are set very high.
Managing director at Avance EMS
After the Twin Towers crumbled, Union Square - my home for four years as a New York University student - became the makeshift memorial for 9/11. In the midst of posters of missing people's faces, tearful eyes, sobbing cries, songs accompanied by guitar, chanting monks, candles, and flowers, I chanced upon one colorful, crayon-marked piece of paper.
"Why don't the terrorists just say sorry?" a young girl had written. It was innocent, naive, and, of course, silly.
But watching the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, half a world away, I wonder if there is a "sorry" somewhere in our country's leadership that would perhaps make this tragedy feel somewhat better.
Reena Vadehra, American writer
She has no fear. Her smile is buoyant. Her brightly colored striped shirt and red and blue barrettes pale in comparison with her exuberant six-year-old spirit. She looks boldly and joyfully at the stranger's camera. She symbolizes the New Orleans spirit, so hard to convey to those who haven't experienced it.
Those pictures, taken at a New Orleans playground on our family trip across the US, remind me that the city is not dead. It is alive and well in the spirit of her people. In the spirit of her children. In the spirit of one six-year-old little girl.
Em Hunter, freelance writer
Much has been made in the media of the years of warnings that had been given about the limitations of New Orleans' levees. Yet it is an unfortunate principle of crisis management that expected crises usually occur in unexpected ways.
Crisis managers are left to adjust to the crises they face, not those they expected.
Stephen A. Myrow
Former lecturer of crisis simulation at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University
I have lost possibly all of my possessions, not to mention my job, and my city. In perspective, my loss is nothing, a peripheral inconvenience.
The real losses are more abstract: Locally oriented educational and professional careers, as well as the dreams that attend them, have been meaninglessly cut short. Favorite places for relaxation and meditation - a pond in City Park, an oak-shaded road in Biloxi - no longer exist. Worst of all, networks of friends and colleagues have been fragmented and scattered by Katrina's hard winds. When will we next convene, and where, and why? What will bring us together like a neighborhood or a job naturally does?
Evan Clary, English teacher
After volunteering at my local Red Cross call center, I am in awe that so many want to leave their families, sacrifice their time and comfort, and go to the disaster sites.
If we all play to our strengths, the people of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama will be able to rebuild their lives as quickly and painlessly as possible.
I can assure them that if my area is any indication, millions of their fellow Americans are reaching out to them with open pocketbooks, open homes, and most of all, open hearts.
Carol Ayer, volunteer and writer
If there was ever a need for a debate about the future of urban America, it is now, as Katrina has blown the issue onto center stage. Why are we so confident that we can improve the lives of Shiites in Baghdad, but seem to exhibit only marginal hope that we can improve the lives of black Americans in Detroit, Los Angeles, and other US cities?
Erik Lindell, freelance writer
E. Greenbush, N.Y.
In its 2005 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers surveyed 15 infrastructure categories - including roads, bridges, drinking water, and public schools - and issued an overall grade of "D."
Because everyone benefits from public goods - think parks, national defense, roads, highways, and yes, levees - no one individually has an incentive to pay for them. And private markets don't have incentives to produce them. Without government's coercive powers, everyone wants a free ride.
Resources have been mustered for every problem America has faced in its history, and revamping public infrastructure should be no exception.
Associate professor of law at the University of San Francisco
Overseas, America promotes democracy, freedom, and opportunity. At home, a large section of our population is trapped in poverty, fear, and daily indignity. Great sacrifices are expected of our young men serving in Iraq and their loyal families.
Nothing is asked of the rest of America except to go on living as if there is no tomorrow, spending endlessly at the malls, and driving gas-guzzling SUVs. In the wake of Katrina, the world wonders how the most powerful country could leave so many of its most vulnerable citizens so unprotected.
The human tragedy of New Orleans challenges us to consider our country's still unfulfilled commitment to the proposition that all men are created equal. Decades of broken promises have breached the levees of trust. None of us is responsible for the wounds of the past but we are all responsible for the acts of repair.
Every community in America must learn to ask itself hard questions. Without blame, but with shared responsibility, we can move forward together toward solutions.
National director, Hope in the Cities