Ten months ago, I was in the Indian Himalayas, cut off from the media connections most Americans take for granted.
On Christmas Day, a young neighbor from the village, who taught math and spoke limited English, stopped by to ask if I'd heard the news: A huge wave had slammed many parts of Southeast Asia, he stammered, and thousands were feared dead in India alone. In a nation that had long ago earned an advanced degree from Mother Nature's school of hard knocks, it didn’t take long to recognize that this story was of a different magnitude.
Still, as an American abroad, I could not help but imagine that the destruction wrought by the tsunami, affecting not only India but also Sri Lanka and Thailand, had more than a little to do with the fact that these places are considered part of the developing world. Superior communications, better roads and the immense wealth of the United States would surely protect us from such a fate, I thought.
I was wrong, of course. After the events of the past couple of weeks, I now recognize, as no doubt many do, that in our rush towards a global future, Americans have lost sight of how the natural world works.
In our remote Indian village, we lived without television, radio and the Internet umbilical. The mountains, clouds and stars provided not just entertainment, but information and solace. In America, broadcast and electronic media tracked the storm called Katrina, until somehow, the news reports overtook reality.
On Aug. 29, television anchors declared that New Orleans had dodged a major bullet. The hurricane veered away from the city, but a storm surge caused Lake Portchartrain to overwhelm its levees. The surfeit of coverage since, especially in my home in the heart of Texas where thousands of Gulf Coast refugees have arrived, makes me feel like I'm drowning. Then came Hurricane Rita, adding to the destruction and confusion on the ground.
Here's one lesson: America may yet engineer its way out of the coming energy crisis (some will observe it is already upon us) but, technology notwithstanding, the earth is going to continue hurling nasty sliders towards home base. You don't have to look back to Pompeii to see that this is the way it has always been; nor do you have to type "San Francisco quake" into a search engine to envision a future when survivorship will mean more than outsmarting one's fellow contestants.
An old college chum, who found shelter from Katrina in Austin, Texas, tells me that the talk at backyard barbecues in Louisiana had tended to focus not on when the levees would break — but if. It just goes to show the power of groupthink that even college-educated professionals, who understand the potential impact of global warming, subsidence and the loss of Gulf Coast wetlands, could stiff-arm the notion that a hard rain was gonna’ fall.
"I told them it would happen within the next 50 years," my friend says. "And they would tell me to get lost. I guess I was being too optimistic."
As with this nation's last great tragedy, 9/11, Katrina provides us an opportunity to take stock of our many unwitting assumptions. But there are obvious differences between what happened in the Big Apple and the Big Easy: One was manmade, the other orchestrated by nature. Perhaps that's the reason I find myself looking to the distant horizon of the Himalayas, to where it’s commonly believed our karma is not the result of actions in this lifetime, but the result of actions that took place before any of us were born.
Put another way: Nature doesn't care. It’s not my intention to abdicate hope or absolve the culpable. In India, where ancient traditions coexist with the new technology boom, accountability remains a keyword with regard to disaster response; more so since July, when monsoon floods killed more than 1,000 people in Mumbai. Meanwhile, across Asia, people have been rebuilding their lives, in some cases in the same places their families have lived for generations.
Over the coming weeks, as if by instinct, many Americans will do the same. As the construction crews arrive in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, it's worth keeping in mind that our presence on earth is but a single breath in the planet's history. No matter what we build, it’s even money that an earthquake, hurricane, tsunami or volcano could wipe it all away.