Forget blaming politicians in Washington and Louisiana for not preparing us for Hurricane Katrina. I blame Hollywood.
In the movies, natural disasters end wrapped in a bow. People die, but the chaos is contained to one major city, and there's always a tender ending.
In "The Day After Tomorrow," the father finds his son in a library in New York. In "Volcano," the emergency management director saves Los Angeles from an active underground volcano. In "Dante's Peak," a scientist and his honey survive the eruption of a volcano in a small village.
Hollywood lulls us into believing we can defeat Mother Nature with nifty scientific calculations and stubborn bravado. Katrina showed us that the only true superpowers are mother and human nature.
Somewhere between action flicks and John Wayne presidents, America began believing its own hype. We're the rock other countries lean on. You name it and we're ready: earthquake in China, tsunami in Indonesia. We got your back.
We're supposed to predict and prevent disasters from affecting our people. And when we can't, and the bad things do happen here, Americans stick together.
When tornadoes or hurricanes rip apart lives and cities, the media feeds us heartwarming tales of heroism, neighbors helping neighbors and the lost pet that finds its family. Those stories reinforce our belief in America's ability to overcome any adversity.
United we stand, and all that jazz.
It didn't happen in New Orleans. Long before Oprah and Dr. Phil began doing photo-ops down there, hoodlums were shooting at rescuers and raping victims. Red tape mired large-scale relief efforts and bodies were rotting in the streets.
Action movies, the news media and technology give us instant gratification. While watching the horrific coverage on cable news, I kept waiting to see Bruce Willis run through the French Quarter, strategically place explosives, blow up buildings and divert the flood. But it didn't happen, just like sending donations on the Internet didn't instantly stop the flood of images of children crying, and helpless men and women wondering if they'd survive.
Books often capture the complexity of human emotion better than movies, and as I watched the hurricane coverage on TV I was reminded of a book by sci-fi writer Octavia Butler.
Her 1993 novel "Parable of the Sower" is a precursor to the chaos in New Orleans. In "Parable," Los Angeles is in anarchy. Families live in fortresslike gated communities to keep out people who are addicted to a drug that makes them want to burn, rape and murder. The novel follows an 18-year-old and her companions' perilous escape from the city after gangs destroy her neighborhood.
What struck me about the book is the brutality men will inflict upon each other and women out of desperation, fear and anger. At times the book was painful to read, but it was fiction. Seeing news reports from the Gulf Coast shook me, because this inexplicable violence was happening in a real U.S. city.
I hope the lawlessness that occurred after Katrina and the ineptitude of local, state and federal officials to help the people in the Gulf Coast inspires emergency preparedness officials in every city to re-examine their plans.
The fourth anniversary of Sept. 11 has just passed, and Katrina showed that we are as vulnerable to disaster today as we were when the towers fell.
The question is whether Americans will seriously examine the conditions that led to this type of chaos or whether we dismiss it as punks in New Orleans. We can't sleep easier just because Harry Connick Jr., Sean Penn and other celebrities are trekking through floodwaters trying to make victims and viewers feel better.
There is something wrong in our society when in less than a week men go from being survivors to rapists and snipers. The level of desperation and rage that sparked that kind of cruelty didn't begin with a busted levee and it won't disappear when the levee is rebuilt.
- Tonya Jameson is a columnist for the Charlotte Observer.