Twelve years ago, I went to Biloxi, because I was at loose ends, because my parents bought my plane ticket, because them sending me was something they could do to help in Katrina’s aftermath. I worked with Hands On Disaster Relief (now All Hands Volunteers), the sort of outfit in its early years that asked only “do you have your shots, and do you want someone to meet you at the airport or bus station?”
My friend Serena had found this group, she went down a week before I did and met me at the airport. Other friends—Nina, Josh, Lydia, Kate, Carrie, Beth, Laura, Will, Vee—came too, or we met and made friends with each other as the raggedy bunch of recent college grads we were. I don’t remember it all, perfectly.
What I do remember is the knot of horror and rage that left me feeling like I was going to cry or vomit most of the time. I’m a white girl from New Hampshire with an expensive education. I spent most of my time in the mountains. I was not prepared for all of the destruction, for shaking hands with the people who had been left behind or stayed behind or just got back to Biloxi after the storm. I was not prepared for reality.
I came out of all of that, after a few months, with a puppy. Carrie had fallen in love with him at the animal shelter, but whatever home she’d thought to give him to had fallen through. And then when it was time for me to go, the puppy was on the edge of just being a spoiled feral pet of Hurricane Camp, so I adopted him. It wasn’t anything official—I just happened to be the one to take him to the vet, and I happened to write my name down as “owner.” I named him Noah, for the flood. They told me naming him Noaa would have been too much, even for me.
I kept that little guy, and I loved him. And for almost twelve years, he was my constant companion. He went with me across the country six times, saw me through two shattering heartbreaks and some minor heartaches, came with me to grad school, hiked where I hiked, swam where I swam, was where I was, for all that time. When my father died, I regularly cried into Noah’s fur like the world had ended. It has been a roller coaster of a decade, and Noah was there for all of it. We were the most secure daily fixtures in each other’s lives through all the changes I dragged us through, the adventures I sought, the troubles that hit. Until my poor sweet Pet came down with dementia, became uncomfortable, inconsolable, in his own skin and I had to let him go—two months ago now—snuggled in my and my sister’s arms, loved until the last moment he knew and beyond.
As the rain falls and the water rises in Texas, I feel as if no time has passed. Because the news is the same, the pictures are the same, the devastation is the same, the goodwill of neighbors, the kindness of strangers, the imbecility of the leaders, the ovine shock of the rest of the country…all of this is the same. My dog has lived a full life and died, and we—the people—have still not addressed the root causes of why these storms are so devastating.
The climate is changing, and we are changing it. The people we elect to leadership positions are not leading. These storms are not the wrath of God, are not natural—unless you might, as I could be convinced, think that these storms are the divine wrath of the forces of nature rising up against the species that has wrecked and ravaged our way through the world since we first discovered fire.
Storms are more frequent and with heavier loads of water because the planet is warming. The planet is warming because the emissions from making cars go, planes fly, smartphones charge and plastics ubiquitous and life too convenient are thickening the atmosphere and trapping air closer to the planet. We are thickening the air, insulating our planet from the necessary cool of the rest of the universe. And so, in our little chemical hothouse, the warmth begets moisture, the moisture begets storms with greater wallop than ever.
What is stopping us from stopping these things? In part, we are simply a lazy, selfish and unimaginative people. We think such things as Katrina, as Sandy, as Harvey will never happen to us, personally. It’s easier to think that. It’s easier to turn off the imagination, the voice that says “what if…” Horror of our own is incomprehensible, surreal. But, as my friend Mary, reporting from Charlottesville last week said “the thing to say is ‘it’s so surreal’ but that is an utter disservice to the reality that this all is.”
I don’t care if mass flooding and destruction is never going to happen to me. I’d rather it doesn’t, but it’s going to happen and keep happening to others, and there is nothing special about me that is going to make a storm pass me by. Anyone’s reality could easily be my own, if the tides turn, if the weather shifts. When.
If you did know that a storm was about to destroy your life, but could be soothed by taking a bus or putting up solar panels or air-drying your clothes, would you make those changes? Can you go without, can you live smaller, simpler? Could you use electronics less, more wisely? Are you willing to donate not your blood or money to relief efforts, but to make structural changes in your life that will cut the emissions that are increasing the severity of storms?
And then there are our politicians and industrialists. The policy makers seem hamstrung by industries that make money while Rome burns and floods, because they are. Our president cares more for his t.v. ratings than for staffing the agencies that oversee disaster response, never mind his abysmal decisions on loosening regulations on industries that will further increase the cloud envelope around the planet. But, much as I despise Trump, he is not solely responsible for this storm, personally. The fault is with all people who have power and refuse to act responsibly with it. All people. Anyone who makes a choice has power, that is the sort of power that needs to shift, that is the power we all have.
Twelve years. That is the difference between a first grader and a high school senior. That is a lifetime. I simply cannot accept that so little has happened on a large scale when so much happened in the small space between myself and the little dog who came out of the flood with me.
Lastly, a nice man I met in Biloxi, standing outside what had been his house, said that in disasters, people should donate socks and underwear. He could cope with a lot of the troubles, but being able to wear clean underpants just makes a person feel more human. This is the scale that horror happens at. Send underwear. Thank you.