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Manning the pumps

The night before I left for a visit to my parents, Paul told me that the state police were collecting donations for those affected by hurricane Katrina — clothing, toiletries, and baby gear. Shortly before I went to bed, then, I crept into Charlie's room and began rummaging through his closet and his dresser, collecting the outgrown items I'd planned to donate locally.

Though I tried to be quiet, he stirred, and I froze: he's been teething, and getting him to sleep has required great effort and patience. If he woke, I knew I'd be screwed.

For a moment I resolved to leave his room, and then I remembered what I was doing. And then I felt a surge of self-disgust so powerful that I actually did a little dance of agony. A city is underwater. Thousands of people are homeless. We don't know how many have died. Yet there I was, worrying that I might be inconvenienced.


Many of you have asked about my family. I am so grateful for your concern. I'm relieved to report that everyone I know was lucky. They were only inconvenienced. They've had to leave their homes, and for a few, the date of their return and the status of their property are uncertain. But they all got out early and unharmed.

My aunt lives in a suburb of New Orleans and routinely leaves town when storms threaten. This time as usual, she evacuated to my grandparents' house in north Louisiana, where she is most welcome but not always ideally comfortable. After a week there she needed a break, so we all convened at my parents'.

We don't know what's happened to her house. Though it's unlikely that there was any significant flooding, wind damage, downed trees, broken windows, and lawlessness are still of some concern. "It's just stuff," she and my mother reassured each other, and in her case that is true. It's just a house.

But it's much easier for me to focus on the specific and the personal — to think about the stuff, to obsess about the details, to worry about whether her refrigerator will have to be junked outright — than it is to take in the enormity of the general. If I think for long about what's been lost, not only life but a way of life, I get a little crazy.

Here is an example of my focus. I tried to help my aunt apply for assistance from FEMA, specifically the $2000 promised to people who were displaced by the storm to supplement their living expenses while away from home. Two weeks after the storm hit land — remember this, two weeks — here is what we experienced:

  • Wait times on the phone in excess of half an hour
  • An impossibly broken Web site
  • Operators who could tell us nothing about the criteria for getting assistance
  • Random hang-ups while holding for an operator
  • A bored operator finally telling us only after the holding and the hangups that the FEMA help line, where one manages an application for assistance, would be down for 24 to 72 hours.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is our emergency management system, not even in the heat of the crisis but two weeks afterward. Not even in an unexpected calamity, but one we saw coming. "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees," indeed.

Jesus gay, I don't even know where to start. Maybe the details are worth obsessing about after all.




I usually confine my expressions of scorn for our political leaders to the occasional sly aside. And I usually confine my posts here to topics related to infertility, pregnancy, and parenthood. The fact that it's now all intertwined, that I find it difficult to separate my apprehension at how rickety this hellbound handbasket really is from my hopes and fears for Charlie, makes it harder to keep things light.

Two things made me stop watching hurricane coverage on TV. One was the sight of a young mother, fretting that her 7-week-old baby, formerly active and alert, was now listless and didn't wake up much. Another was the report that at the height of the crisis, premature babies were not being evacuated from hospitals — hospitals which would soon be out of water and power — because it was judged too dangerous.

On September 1, on ABC's Good Morning America, President Bush admonished Diane Sawyer that there is a time for politics, and that this isn't it. I disagree. I believe that when the alarming weaknesses of our federal emergency system have been exposed; when it's revealed that the aid Louisiana requested for shoring up its flood defenses was denied in favor of funding the war in Iraq and homeland security; when the head of FEMA, the unqualified beneficiary of a patronage appointment, is not immediately fired or removed from natural disaster duty but instead simply removed from managing this hurricane; when the wife of one former president and the mother of the current one is so profoundly out of touch that she asserts that forcible relocation is "working very well" for some of the poor who've lost everything; when our current president waits two days after Katrina hit land before deciding to cut short his five-week vacation — well, is there a better time to get politically galvanized?


But sputtering rage, I must remind myself, is ultimately unproductive. We can help in concrete ways. Natalee has set up a site organizing donations to evacuees in Dallas. Cooper and Emily have created the Katrina Clearinghouse to help match donors with specific families in need. And of course there are the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and many other worthy organizations distributing aid.

There is also, thank God, the March of Dimes, whose president sent this e-mail:

The March of Dimes extends its heartfelt sympathies to the thousands of Americans who are coping with the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

This special email is sent to update our volunteers, donors and friends on how we are responding to the crisis. Your continued support is critical at this time to allow us to continue to support infants and pregnant women in need:

  • March of Dimes specialists are assisting with direct service and support for over 100 sick and premature babies who were transferred to Women's Hospital in Baton Rouge.
  • March of Dimes is currently working to obtain much-needed clothing and other supplies for displaced pregnant women and babies in the Gulf Coast area ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
  • Our staff is also working to ensure that those Katrina survivors who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or are parents of newborn babies, receive essential information on nutrition, safe water, safe preparation of formula and the signs and symptoms of premature labor.
  • The March of Dimes is gearing up to provide even more urgently needed services over the next 3 to 12 months as the number of premature births is expected to rise along the Gulf Coast due to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Those premature babies are the ones who were initially left behind. Some got out in helicopters, until the shooting began. Some got out in boats. Some had to leave in canoes.

Later, I heard that they're safe, thanks to the tireless care of doctors and nurses who "were using hand pumps to keep blood circulating in babies too small for their hearts to do the job alone."


I recognize that it's self-indulgent for me to write about how this affects me, given the fact that I'm not there and my loved ones are all unharmed. It's easy to imagine Charlie in the place of those tidefaring babies, and to cry as I think of the parents who evacuated not knowing where or in what condition they'd next find their isoletted child, but I fight my own eagerness to identify. It's not us. It's not about us. It's awful enough on its own without my putting us there.

If only I could help it.