Does God hate New Orleans?

First Katrina. We rebuilt. Now there's oil in Lake Pontchartrain! What are we supposed to think?


Cary Tennis
July 23, 2010 5:01AM (UTC)

Dear Cary Tennis,

This letter was sent to me from a friend. She was very active and brave when she lost her city, New Orleans, to Hurricane Katrina; she is now afraid of the implications of the Louisiana oil spill to her city and grieves for those who are affected and suffering from the spill. She gave me permission to send the letter to you. Perhaps within that deep well of compassion of yours, there are words that you can offer up to help guide her (and the rest of us) to see through to that ever-burning flicker.

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Does God really hate us?

Musings of a New Orleanian...

Yesterday we awoke to the news that the oil has reached Lake Pontchartrain — which is north of the city.

It was mainly the waters of Lake Pontchartrain (the second-largest saltwater lake in the country, I'm told) that raced in through the various levee breaks to drown the city at the end of August 2005.

It wasn't until we escaped the lawless frenzy two days afterward and made it to Jackson that we understood the scope of the destruction: that 80 percent of the city was underwater, including my mother's house and the neighborhood where I'd grown up.

I shed exactly one tear. And then we rolled up our sleeves.

Among the first to be allowed back into the city six weeks later, we made the decision to participate in the rebuilding, to help feed the spirit of our devastated home. We salvaged and gutted and dressed as rotten refrigerators (Halloween) for the national media. We stood in Red Cross lines and showered in water reeking of bleach and navigated the violent, suicide-ridden, dark (no power), childless (no schools) toxicity. For the water had leached the gasoline and transmission fluids from 175,000 cars and boats and gas stations, the household chemicals from over 200,000 homes. It was saturated with the organic matter from refrigerators and grocery stores and from the deaths of 2,000 people and over 100,000 animals. It had cooked for days in the raw sewage from the destroyed sewage treatment plants in the unnatural post-storm heat and left everything coated in a toxic stew.

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And we stayed.

Vast tracts of the city remain uninhabitable. A quarter of a million people turned their backs on their homes and their mortgages, their churches and their neighborhoods and never came back — they still live by you in cities all over the country.

But we stayed —, and we won. Do not mistake me for a moment — we have aged. But those of us who returned and all the new ones who came persevered and proved to ourselves — and to the world — that we were still alive and vibrant and kicking. And then some months ago a new mayor was elected — a man we know to be good and fair and smart. And THEN we won the Super Bowl. Do not underestimate that football trophy. It became the symbol of our rebirth, and we danced in the streets for days.

And then. April 2010 there is an explosion on an oil rig called the Deepwater Horizon. And we knew dread. A few days later it sank, and we met despair.

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This time I have cried innumerable tears. I have mourned the deaths of the men, the creatures, the livelihoods, the seafood, the beaches.

And now the oil is in our lake. In what is already one of the stormiest hurricane seasons in memory. With most of what remains of our wetlands (our storm buffer) soaking in oil as well.

And we are forced to wonder — does God really hate New Orleans and the Gulf Coast? or are we being given this because we've proven we can come back from the abyss? ... One must wonder...

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A New Orleanian

Dear New Orleanian,

I don't live in New Orleans but I can say this:

God does not hate New Orleans.

It wasn't God that failed to maintain those levees. It was people. It wasn't God who decided to drill for oil in the Gulf. It was people. We did that — we, the species to which you and I proudly or not so proudly belong.

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I don't live in New Orleans, but I can also say this: What salves your wounds and saves your soul is your humanity, that very same humanity that keeps dreaming up disastrous schemes and may indeed lead to our destruction but which in the meantime also makes New Orleans jazz and New Orleans food and New Orleans courage and New Orleans laughter and New Orleans warmth and compassion and durability and big-heartedness and New Orleans blues.

and I can say this:

My grandparents and father lived and died on the Florida Panhandle, and I grew up on the Gulf. So I have feelings and ties to the region. And when I think about what has happened I have to speak in anger and in heartache and in outrage.

I am of course angry at those individuals directly responsible for the failures of the levees and the failure of the drilling rig, but I must also say this: None of us is innocent. If we collectively fail to manage our planetary activities, we will die as a species. It will not be the virtuous ecologists who survive while the evil industrialists perish; we will all go down.

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We like to point fingers. But I lie awake at night and wonder, Can we make it?

Are we good enough to make it?

Or are we just plain too stupid to live?

It won't be God's fault if we don't make it. We've had our chances.

If we cannot sustain ourselves on this planet and sometime far in the future intelligent creatures unearth our remains, they may not care much that many of us did what we could; they may not care much how we "spoke out" and "did our best." They will just conclude that we were not successful as a species. They may determine that some disease ravaged us, or that something eliminated our habitat or our food source. They may attribute this loss of habitat and food source to some planetwide meteorological phenomenon; they may calculate that our own industries poisoned our world and led to our destruction.

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But they will mainly see that we just didn't make it. They will probably not really get what we loved about ourselves, our doomed, tragic selves, our silly, childish selves. They will not see our artworks, our buildings and bridges; they will not, I do not think, develop a fondness for our divided, tragic nature, how we were gifted but immature, loving but brutal, occasionally rational but given to sustained bouts of mass insanity.

They will just see that we didn't make it.

And it won't be God's fault.

So I lie awake and ask myself, What the fuck is wrong with us?

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We humans are geniuses who act like children. We can do a lot when we feel like it, but we are sensitive and temperamental and lazy, and we let things slide, and we fall into tantrums, and we react to threats with blind, unthinking rage, and we fixate on illusions like bulls on a red cape, and we fight the last war, and we overgeneralize and we support our clans and our tribes, we secretly hoard, we overgraze, we despoil, and not because we can't possibly know what we're doing but we just can't get up the sustained energy to do what we know has to be done. It's like ... we just aren't good enough. We make poor decisions. We discount the dangers and accentuate the positive. We take big risks with other people's money and other people's land.

We clearly should not be managing our own affairs.

If we know what kind of temperament we need for governance, if we know what kind of science needs to guide our policy, why don't we seize the power to make that happen?

Maybe it is too much work. Maybe we're just not good enough.

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Maybe it is just too hard. Maybe the costs and benefits just don't add up. Maybe it is just so much easier to do things half-assed and let things fall apart and let people die and lose their homes, and then we can marvel at the human spirit as people show their courage in adversity and rebuild only to let things fall apart again.

Maybe boom-and-bust is our species nature, rather than sober, careful, deliberate lives based on reason and science that reason and science and prudence seem to call for.

Maybe tragedy is our essential nature.

But let's not blame God. It's us. We're the ones who built the levees and then chose not to spend the money and effort to make them impregnable. We're the ones who let companies drill for oil in the Gulf and failed to make sure that regulators were checking the plans of the companies against their actual practices. We're the ones who build our homes on fault lines and in flood plains and in fire-prone forests and on fragile beaches.

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Many of us need God. We need something, for chrissakes! We can't handle being who we are and knowing that once we're dead that's it, and there's no ordering intelligence surrounding us. We have to believe there is some nurturing force taking care of us, some support, some succor, some relief.

So let us believe something. But let's not abdicate our responsibility. We built these oil derricks. We can't just let them fail and then blame God. God didn't build them.

The truth is that we humans keep screwing up.

Even when we do not accuse God of doing these things to us, we allow ourselves to appeal to God to help us out of the mess we have made, to get through it, because we have screwed it up again, we humans, we flawed creatures with big brains and big hopes but little capacity to see into the future, little capacity for humility and caution, little true awe, little awe, little wisdom, little maturity, little harmony with what is around us.

And maybe if we took seriously some of the stuff we make up about this putative God, maybe if we took seriously some of our own bullshit, we would realize that if there were a God, this God would likely be saying, "Grow up, you shitty humans! Grow up, slow down, use the brains I gave you. Stop spending so much time procreating and start taking care of this pretty amazing world. Stop fucking things up!"

That's what I would say if I were God. I'd say, "Stop fucking things up!"



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Cary Tennis

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