Katrina Victims Are in Fear of Compassion Fatigue

by Joe McKeever

Today was the first day thousands were allowed to return to see what the hurricane and flood had left of their homes and businesses. With others, I visited St. Bernard's Parish, the area immediately down river from New Orleans. You'll find refineries there and fishing villages, but mostly lower-middle-class neighborhoods for people who work in New Orleans. St. Bernard was almost totally obliterated by Katrina. Seeing it this morning, Hiroshima came to mind.

How many times can you say "Wow, look at that"? You run out of words to describe what you are seeing: A car in the middle of a field standing on its nose. A boat in a tree. A refrigerator on top of a house. A dumpster on the Arabi Church. Slick, oily mud six inches deep inside Hopeview Church. RVs that had floated onto the medians and wrecked. Houses everywhere that have been stripped bare inside and out, looted by Katrina's winds. A three-pound fish on the sidewalk outside the Poydras sanctuary. Where hundreds of homes had stood, now lie not even piles of rubbish—just slabs. Piles of junk lining the roads, like landfill contents coughed up and spat out. A brown, dreary world made up of dried mud and dead grass and ruined trees.

Yet we on the Gulf Coast worry about compassion fatigue. We all know about compassion fatigue. Twenty years ago, every time you turned on the set, you saw the hungry children of Somalia and Ethiopia. At first, you gave money and prayed and contacted your congressman. You gave more money and prayed. Eventually, when the face of another starving child appeared on the screen, you switched to another channel. You just could not deal with it any more.

That's what we fear will happen. And yet, here in the New Orleans area, we're just suiting up for the recovery yet to be done. If our friends are tired already of hearing about it and praying for us and helping us, we're in a lot of trouble.

(Editor's note: Since these words were written, the world has experienced a rash of catastrophes, large and larger—including the killer earthquake in Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan, flooding in Guatemala and on our own East Coast, etc.)

At the invitation of Polly Boudreaux, clerk of the St. Bernard Parish Council, we sat in on their meeting. The council was meeting in the only place available, a cruise ship called "Scotia Prince." Various spokesmen for relief organizations and rebuilding companies were addressing the council members in what was previously a casino room. One man pointed out that of the 24,000 homes ruined by the flood, only one-fourth had flood insurance. Over the next hour I sat there listening and wondering how it feels to preside over a parish that does not exist any more. There is no commerce, none, inside their borders. And no residents, not one.

"How can a storm tear the bricks away from a building like that?" I asked my companions—builders both—as we looked at a denuded church building. One pointed out that the masonry had not been tied to the wood structure. The metal ties were there, but it was a rare one that was fixed into the masonry.

For years that little church sat there looking strong. As sturdy as a brick house, we might say. When the storm came, it revealed a weakness in the construction no one had ever noticed.

There's a sermon there. Life's storms do not cause the weaknesses; they reveal them. That's why in the good times, when we're well and the children are behaving and the bills are paid, this is the time to make sure of the solid construction of our lives, our faith, our relationship with the Lord. Because sooner or later, the storm is coming.

A professor at our seminary looked at the ruins of his home today and said, "I suppose this develops our character." Someone else said, "Rather it reveals it."

That's the point. Storms and stresses of life uncover the masks and camouflages and defenses we so carefully construct, leaving the real "us" exposed to the world. Who you are under great stress is the real you. For good or for bad.

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