A Frantic Hour

The dumbest question asked by any reporter anywhere in response to Hurricane Katrina came last Monday in Houston.

Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. Bush had just finished announcing a special relief effort — the Hurricane Katrina Fund — when someone in the press pool blurted out, “What do you think of reports that the levees were intentionally broken?”

The two men were already walking away at that point, but you could see the question register on Clinton’s perennially exhausted face. Uncertainty — did she really say that? — then anger — how dare she say that? — then sadness — what a sick, sick world where someone could even think that.

Then again, maybe I was just projecting my reaction. It was a hastily called press conference at a frantic hour, and they couldn’t keep everyone out. For a moment I was even embarrassed for the two ex-presidents, who, after offering themselves forth, get hit with such a crackpot response.

That night, I found that I was still thinking about that question.

It was, on the one hand, in keeping with a well-established American tradition of asinine conspiracy theories. Other examples: AIDS was a virus released by the CIA in the ghettos; the Mossad flew those planes into the Twin Towers; American nuclear testing caused the tsunami in Indonesia. Extremists of all stripes can’t stand to see complicated reality destroy their airtight ideologies. Fantasy fills in where facts seem to fall short.

But what made that question stick in my mind was something else: the idea of intentionality.

As much as we want the floodwaters to wash our hands of culpability in the unfolding tragedy, our hands are not clean.

No one intentionally broke the levees, but many people intentionally decided to limit funds for repairing and improving them. No one intentionally brought the waters down on the Gulf and New Orleans, but many people helped alter the natural environment to the area’s detriment. No one intentionally flooded those impoverished parishes, but many people decided to overlook their needs. No one intentionally let so many people suffer in the wake of this disaster, but many people — like me, like you — turned their backs on these poorest of the poor long before the floodwaters tragically worsened their lot.

Judaism, in its wisdom, makes such distinctions, as well. God is in control of the trembling Earth and its raging waters. But it is left to us humans to control how we treat the natural world and ourselves, how we prepare for and deal with both natural and man-made conditions. What our tradition is trying to beat into our heads is that there have to be two responses to the tragedy.

Most immediately, we must accept its inevitability and meet its demands with quickness and courage, with mercy and generosity. By all accounts, the Jews of Los Angeles, as individuals and as a community, have been doing this. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has received and distributed more than $500,000 in relief funds. Chabad has announced it will raise money during its upcoming telethon for relief efforts. Synagogues and other organizations have also raised significant funds. Even the Great American Hot Dog Company, a kosher establishment at The Grove, kicked in, shipping its entire weekend proceeds to hurricane relief. To do more, you can link directly to donor sites at www.jewishjournal.com.

But the second response has to go beyond that, to learn the deeper lessons. Clinton was getting at this more profound response when he said at the same Monday news conference that, “There are a lot of similarities between the people most affected by the tsunami and by the hurricane.”

The hurricane afflicted the most vulnerable in our society. They were invisible before the floods and given our track record, there is a good chance they will return to their role as disaster-victims-in-waiting once the cameras are turned off. It was not intentional, but yet we nonetheless left them to suffer the worst effects of the storm’s violence — just as they suffer the worst effects of social violence.

Now we need to ask whether we’ve done enough to help them outside of emergencies. It is a comforting cliché of Jewish life, to be repeated often from pulpits this weekend I’m sure, that God is not in the hurricane, but in our response to it. That is only partially true.

True, our first response should be, “How can I help?” For in helping we make manifest the goodness of our Creator. But our second response must go deeper. It must be: “How can I make sure it doesn’t happen again?”

Is it enough to airlift people out of harm’s way, but do nothing to lift them out of poverty?

How do we make investment in education, healthcare and housing as much of a national emergency as a natural disaster?

“The worse thing of all is when a Jew makes peace with the way things are,” the Slonimer rebbe wrote in Netivot Shalom. At every moment, he continued, our souls are summoned to do God’s work. “In every condition that a Jew is in there is an aspect of, ‘And God called out to him….'”

At this moment, it would be a mistake to assume all the suffering we’ve witnessed was the result of an inevitable, albeit historic, flood. No. As expert after expert has made clear, the greatest human costs came about because of ill planning and poverty — and those are not conditions we need accept.

That’s what makes the images and news of Katrina so tragic: not that the death and destruction were intentional, but that they were — to a large degree — avoidable.