The devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is impossible to imagine. Words and pictures cannot do it justice.
Local residents who have lived through tornadoes can begin to imagine it, but tornadoes are narrow, powerful forces that strike and leave in seconds. They do not reach out for hundreds of miles, hammer away for hours and bring 20-foot waves with them.
Katrina did all that and more. One of the nation's great cities, New Orleans, is inundated. "This isn't the worst-case scenario we all worried about, but this is the second-worst-case scenario -- more than 80 percent of our city is under water," said New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. City officials Tuesday were coming to the grim realization that New Orleans is going to be a closed city for weeks, perhaps months.
Best and worst
Hurricane Katrina produced the best of scenes, as hundreds of volunteers with boats and trucks answered calls for help in rescuing people stranded by high water. Thousands of volunteers from across the nation -- firefighters, police officers, service organization professionals and utility workers -- are forming caravans headed toward Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
And, regrettably, it brought out the worst in some, as looters brazenly broke into stores and looted merchandise while news cameras rolled.
In years to come, the many who answered the call to help will be able to respond proudly when asked what they did when the hurricane hit; the looters can bow their worthless heads and pretend not to remember.
"This is our tsunami," said Biloxi, Miss., Mayor A.J. Holloway. And the comparison is understandable to anyone who has seen pictures of Southeast Asia after the tsunami and pictures of the Gulf Coast today.
But unlike the tsunami in which hundreds of thousands died, the death toll along the Gulf Coast will be counted in the hundreds. The relatively low death toll, given the scope of the storm, is a testament to this nation's ability to warn its residents of an impending disaster and a tribute to the infrastructure we have in place to allow people to flee. More than 400,000 people were evacuated from New Orleans. About 10,000 of those unable to flee found refuge at the Superdome. Thousands were rescued in the day immediately following the storm.
Still, those hundreds of deaths are tragic, each one of them. For many of the survivors there will be nightmares and flashbacks for months. Some will never fully recover. Such is the human toll.
The economic toll is also going to be staggering. Insurance experts estimated the storm will result in up to $25 billion in insured losses, and those were early estimates, before New Orleans was flooded by breaks in its protecting levies. There is no doubt that Katrina will prove more costly than record-setting Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which caused an inflation-adjusted $21 billion in losses.
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco asked residents to spend today in prayer. "That would be the best thing to calm our spirits and thank our Lord that we are survivors," she said. "Slowly, gradually, we will recover; we will survive; we will rebuild."
That is as good a start toward recovery as any.
Those of us outside the storm's path can also contribute to the recovery through our donations. Dozens of reputable charitable organizations will be mounting relief efforts.
Those eager to help who do not know where to turn can start with the American Red Cross or Salvation Army, either of which can be contacted at local offices or found online at www.redcross.org or www.salvationarmyusa.org.
This is a time when the entire nation can respond to help tens of thousands of people in need.