I spent two months-plus covering the Mississippi River Flood of 1993 -- boating across the baseball diamond in Davenport, surveying damage from a Coast Guard helicopter, sitting in tents talking to evacuees, accompanying people through the ruins of their homes. I was standing on a sandbag levee still being fortified when it started to give and got away just before it blew with a burst of sound and rush of water. I thought I knew what a flood could do.
I grew up knowing my hometown of Memphis was at risk and I wondered back in 1993, as we watched water creep up the Arch grounds, what would happen if any of the levees protecting St. Louis was breached. Listening, watching and reading about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, though, I realize that 2003 was only a taste compared to what can happen when a hurricane brings flooding in its wake. At the same time, I see my worst fears of urban flooding being played out -- all while I sit in a dry, comfortable house in suburban St. Louis.
And I wonder how many people across the U.S. who responded so swiftly to the awful tsunami in SE Asia last December realize the scope of the devastation. I just got off the phone with someone who felt compelled to act then but hasn't come close to grasping the gravity of what is happening now in our own backyard.
Dozens of people, possibly hundreds, are dead. Hundreds of thousands are without homes for now and into the foreseeable future. Communities are gone. A city that withstood wars is losing battle after battle with nature; it will be years before anything approaching a real recovery can take place. As I write, New Orleans -- a city most of us only know when life is pouring into the streets -- is being completely evacuated because it is no longer livable.
An unknown number of lives are not the same and never will be.