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Appreciation of What We Have

Hector H. Hernandez

It has been two weeks since the terrible devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. The reality of the loss of that beautiful city still keeps me awake at night. For those who have never been in a category five hurricane, there is nothing in the world that can compare to the total helplessness you feel. But as much as the devastation of the natural forces caught our attention, the aftermath of the storm has transfixed our society and has shaken us to the core. The images of those ignored, forgotten, and left behind by society are forever etched in my mind. The living pick at the pieces of their lives, while the body of someone’s mother, or is it a sister, or a daughter, gently floats by. A woman died on the sidewalk, and over the course of three days, a small memorial was built around her by those left behind. I feel the vacuum and emptiness of a community that is gone forever.

We look at the pictures of the human tragedy and debasement of the citizens of New Orleans in horror and shock. Why are we so surprised? Are we not animals with the most basic instincts? For those who believe in the goodness of human nature, a quick review of the horror stories coming from the devastation should wake them up from their stupor. Society is just a short step away from the primal instincts of our long-lost ancestors. All I can think of is that this could have been avoided. The feeling of rancor and anger in the pit of my stomach will not go away.

Hurricanes come and go. The season starts in June and lasts through November. We have the most up-to-date weather prediction systems. The possibility of devastation in low-lying costal cities was predicted by many. Evacuation plans were designed. But only for those who could afford to gas up and get out of town. Those who could not were left behind to fend for themselves. Once again, the sharp contrast between those who have and those who do not was exposed. We were let down by our leaders. Years of warnings from scientists, engineers, and social reformers were ignored while the structural and communal infrastructure of our country crumbled around us.

For two years now we have looked at the situation in Iraq and other parts of the world and wondered how people can commit the atrocities we see on the evening news. In the last week, we have had the veil lifted from our faces, and we have been made to face the reality of our own society. What right do we have to condemn others when we cannot properly address our own grievances?

The deterioration of the community in New Orleans happened because there was a sense of disconnect and abandonment by the poor. Society had disenfranchised the poor and elderly from the basic necessities of life. But do not think that this is a problem of New Orleans or of the South. If you go into some poor neighborhoods in Cambridge and Boston, you are reminded that the greater Boston area faces the same issues New Orleans faced. There is a history of violence brought on by despair and poverty that continues to be ignored and glossed over by our community leaders.

In the coming weeks and months, there will be a wave of finger pointing, blaming, and passing the buck. Committees will be formed, and reports will be written. In an election year, you can be assured of endless sound bites and grandstanding. But just as before, once elections are over and time passes, the reports will be filed, the sound bites archived, and the promises made forgotten once more. Until the next time we face catastrophe.

We need to stop and appraise our personal stake in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. For too long we have sat at home with our cable television and our MP3s pretending that life is an episode of “The Apprentice” or of another “Extreme Makeover.” Meanwhile, outside our cozy nests, war rages on in our inner cities, poverty is on the rise in America, the gap in education and medical attention between those who have and those who have not increases, and the elderly and the young continue to be neglected and abused. How far will it go? When will we turn off our televisions, take off our ear sets, and join the real world?

Here is a novel idea. Let’s try to do it differently this time. Take what has happened — the countless reports, the varied opinions, the sound bites — and make our own minds up about what really happened. Do not take the word of the news anchor on the six o’clock news, on National Public Radio, or on CNN. If we are to stop this from happening again, we are going to have to accept responsibility for our community. We cannot continue to be passengers on the bus of life.

I challenge you to just do it. Go cold turkey. There is no need to run off to the Peace Corps (although they would gladly accept any help they can get). I am talking about involvement in your immediate neighborhood. Step out of your front door, and go to your neighborhood community center. Go visit your local after-school program coordinator. Go to your local library. Find out what you can do right now, on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, to help out.

Disaster and catastrophe will strike again. We have created a situation of natural and social disequilibrium. Nature and reality have a way of reminding us of our frailty. We can minimize the impact of our actions by accepting the risks of our choices and implementing programs that will proactively move us toward equilibrium with humanity and the environment. Do your part. Make sure that you hold your leaders and yourselves to the commitment to prevent another New Orleans.

Hector Hernandez is a graduate student, former Graduate Student Council vice president, and a graduate representative to the Faculty Policy Committee.