When Disasters Have Names

Every disaster has a name. A disaster has many names when you know the faces of its casualties. You know who suffered what. You know how people are doing. You care and you contribute – just like everybody else. Hurricane Isabel is the name of the disaster you see on TV. Everyone in my town – Poquoson, Virginia – knows the names of some of the 50 families who lost their homes and the 2000 with damage to their houses out of 4360 plus residences. Isabel means the many names for neighbors we know and care about.

One week after, most people still do not have power. Many will do without for another week or so. Yet, there is praise that no one was killed. Doesn’t that speak to our values – sacred life, injury, then property? Among property there are memories like photos/videos, sentimental values and then stuff – no matter the price.

The emergency center in the ruined Middle School Gym is full of items freely donated for those who lost the most. The government didn’t stock the long tables, the people did. Volunteers operate the center.

We have much to applaud in our civil servants. The police, fire fighters and emergency medical personnel left their loved ones to serve us all and the most dangerous time. City/County, Commonwealth and Federal Governments all do their part to help in the recovery. Their roles are clearly defined. It’s the earnestness and dedication of their performance of duty of the officials that makes them so appreciated. Again, we have much to be grateful.

One good that comes from this devastation is the sense of good will among citizens. There is the realization that we don’t live in a cruel or heartless community. Our officials, our bureaucrats, are our neighbors and they care – and some of them had losses. Our public servants serve. The workers in companies that provide us power – under government regulations – and other utilities like cable – make personal sacrifices to bring our services back.

There was no looting on our peninsula on The Peninsula. There are only two roads in and out and one was under water. Besides, the homeowner guns per capita in this Conservative community would make looting more fatal than foolish.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) headquarters is set up in the Christian Outreach Center (our gym) of my Baptist church home. Funny, no one is concerned about the separation of church and state. Food distribution is made at other churches in town. This suggests what safety nets we should have in Virginia and in what order.

Individuals have a personal responsibility to carry insurance. For those who don’t or don’t have enough, the General Assembly should create communities of common interests as multiple safety nets – before you get to a government agency.

First, every extended family should be able to share their resources and discount every penny they provide for relief from their taxes. Dollar for dollar it’s more efficient by a factor of 5 than going through government.

Second, church families, community of faith, should be the second safety net – and they are already for many folks.

Third, communities of co-workers – like credit unions with new capabilities – and (Fourth) neighborhoods organized into credit union-like legal entities should be able to operate tax-free to pool resources and provide relief, loans, etc. for individual members. These should be the third and fourth safety nets.

If a person has none of these – in the future after the legal entities are created – then a welfare agency of the Commonwealth or a Federal agency – for a loan, etc. – should be the fifth safety net.

But, this is a vision for the future. For today, we must deal with the helping agencies as they are. Our churches are stepping up to provide real assistance.

We should be thankful for all that is good in our government – our neighbors who share our burdens and our joy – who represents the best in us – today. Yet, we need to be certain that no government gets too powerful, because sooner or later it will represent the worst of us. Power will be abused.

Here’s to our common cause on high ground indeed. We will recover and rebuild – even better than before Isabel. We will not forget the many names of this disaster. Yet, storms don’t defeat my proud Virginian neighbors, they just set folks back a spell.

Our material losses remind me of what New York City feels after 9-11-01. Think what families across the country suffer when the flag-draped coffin comes home from WW IV. Let’s honor their loved ones and their loss with courage of conviction. Let’s pray for them. Let’s cry with them. Let us never give up.

James Atticus Bowden

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  1. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    My op ed from 2003.

  2. SouthoftheJames.com Avatar


    As much as I respect your opinions about the proper role of government and churches are safety nets for people, and as much as I have tended to prefer philanthropic action to government bureaucracy, I have to disagree with your framework. True, in an idealized model of democracy, the line of responsibility would extend from the individual to the family to the “community,” and finally to government, with markets intervening at various points along the way. But, given my experiences in the nonprofit world, as a church member (Baptist), and as a researcher, I now have serious doubts about the effectiveness of such a linear-minded model (as the old saying goes, “all models are wrong, but some are useful”) to handle not just apolcalyptic crises such as Katrina or major disasters such as Isabel and Gaston, but even some of the very basics of life that are needed on a daily basis.

    In many communities, the social networks that you refer to are simply not evolved enough for things to happen in the most timely manner. The suburbanization of America has created a social disconnect (Putnam’s Bowling Alone theory for example) in which people have lamentably lost the bonds of neighborhood that traditionalist thinkers prefer. The cultural diversification of America – something that has always been a part of this nation’s fabric going back to its colonial roots – has produced both a common culture with ever-shifting values, and subcultures with well-defined values that both inform and conflict with the larger society. As such, the linear thinking that seems to define American political/social conservatism (the person-family-community-government as last resort) really ignores reality in favor of a stylized vision of the past and rose-colored futurism (to the same extent that the scatterbrained, moral relativism in American social/political liberalism ignores our history of social progress and the need for self-reliance/responsibility).

    With respect to religious institutions, American Catholics have witnessed a decentralization and destruction of that faith’s moral authority due to scandals and the echoes of the 1960’s and 1970’s social revolutions. At the same time, American Protestants continue to spiral through periods of rapid iteration whereby a new “faith” crops up nearly every day with the silver-tongued preachers to boot, while “mainline” denominations struggle to compete for the hearts and minds of young and old alike from these new entities and the secular world. Finally, the private charitable and philanthropic communities (in which I work) are so wholly unorganized, un-networked, and silo-driven that effective responses to larger problems, even in small localities, are often much more difficult to attain than the creation of niche activities that serve the interests of only a few.

    What this Gulf Coast tragedy has shown is that it is no longer prudent, effective or morally sound to simply offer an either/or paradigm for social organization and action. Both government bureacracy and faith-driven private action are necessary preconditions for problem resolution in modern America. For the Left & the Right, this means that the instutions of religion must all be respected equally for standing up for their beliefs, whether they are (mostly) White Evangelicals fighting against Abortion or (mostly) Black preachers organizing for Affirmative Action. The firewall between church and the secular state must remain intact in terms of government-sanctioned religion, no religious-sanctioning of government. But, when both institutions can truly come together for a larger, transcendant purpose (disaster relief, aid to the poor, even education), accomondation should rule the day. For as human institutions go, government is no better or worse than church, or vice versa. They’re just different. Abject denigration of one by the other truly gets us nowhere. The responsibility that we have as Christians have specifically is to always humbly focus on our core mission in life and to truly ascertain what it means to render to both Caesar & GOD in appropriate manners.

    — Conaway

  3. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Conaway, thanks. I wouldn’t argue. I offer that we should strengthen our ‘communities’ of family, faith, work and neighbors. Having said, and maybe someday – done that, there will be a role for government in emergencies. The bigger the catastrophe, the bigger the role.

  4. If South Of The James’ theory is true, then the implications are crystal clear: American taxes are a microscopic fraction of what they’ll have to be.

    This week and last, Wal-Mart opened nodes of it’s corporate communication system to EOCs. Cost to the corporation, perhaps $100 thousand per day; cost for the government creation and operation of a similar system about $2 billion plus $1 million per day.

    The same corporation’s using its inventory system to provide relief. By determining what stores are physically accessible, planners can simply zero out inventory, and their vast structure automatically routes stock to those stores. Oregon to Maine, stores and warehouses load trucks with goods bound for Mississippi and Louisiana

    Cost to Wal-Mart is planners’ time, probably 50 persons, and the value of donated goods; cost to government would be the warehouses, the purchased goods’ retail price, truck fleets, etc. In essence, for the state to perform similar functions requires the creation of a substantial portion of the Wal-Mart empire; and the warehousing of that organization for times of crisis. Cost? Don’t ask!

    Chris Saxman’s comment of Sept. 2nd (deleted by Barnie Day) “Our trade association has already shipped over one MILLION of cases of bottled water. Shipped. Not going to. Gone.” Cost for the government purchase, store, coordinate (armed escort) and deliver? I don’t know, but it’s going to be orders of magnitude more expensive; and based on all other government action, orders of magnitude slower.

    Apologies if I don’t buy into the thesis that suburbia has changed the parameters, that the response must be changed, and bureaucracy must take up the slack. There isn’t enough money in the world to buy that system.

    A Shenandoah Valley Note:
    Sunday evening on Interstate 81 is usually jam-packed as truck-cargo jockeys north for Monday morning deliveries in New England. Yesterday had meager truck-traffic northbound.

    Southbound was a procession of support: Strings of rescue vehicles and trailers, trains of lumbering electric-utility trucks, dozens of military convoys, lines of heavy equipment on lowboys, and the normally northbound tractor-trailers headed south. Air support’s rumbling high overhead. Only one system in one nation on earth can respond with this flood of support in reply to nature’s flood.

  5. SouthoftheJames.com Avatar

    Actually, I don’t think that the overall tax burden (local, state, federal) or size of the government sector has to go up in order to change the ability of government to respond. But, I do know that – given globalization, modernization and ther like – looking to private charity first is an outdated argument. We also need to be rethinking what Federalism means in the contemporary context. The right response to natural and social problems should be based on the most efficient and effective means of delivery, not based on preset ideology (liberal or conservative) that flies in the face of evidence.

    As for suburbanization, it may seem like a trivial argument to make on my part, but if look at the entire range of social, economic, and political realignments that have happened as a result in the dramatic shifts in human settlement and economic development processes (not policies, but the actual nature of development and growth), you’ll see that the suburbanization process has really reshaped America. Cities like New Orleans no longer lead our economy, in reality but remain important in the American mind. In reality, most development happens outside of the actual cities (suburbs and exurbs), and economic growth is continuously dispersing throughout the US. Thus, a place like Fairfax County, with over 1 million residents, now has a municipal government that is larger than some state governments. It’s not a growth of bureaucracy as much as it is a more efficient allocation of resources to the centralized unit versus disperse charities or impotence local agencies. In the rest of VA, this kind of action cannot be done locally – it’s a state or regional solution.

    — Conaway

  6. CosmicMojo Avatar

    “Food distribution is made at other churches in town. This suggests what safety nets we should have in Virginia and in what order.”
    I’d disagree with you. Just because the church happend to have safe facilities to help does not mean the official help should stem from churches. There’s no logic there. They have space but they should not have authority. They can help, but they should not have power. Can you imagine if Pat Robertson had control over who got water or not in an emergency?

    Churches should NOT have authority over citizens.

  7. CosmicMojo Avatar

    “In essence, for the state to perform similar functions requires the creation of a substantial portion of the Wal-Mart empire; and the warehousing of that organization for times of crisis.”

    We already have that: it’s right here in Richmond and it’s called Bellwood. Good god, the Army invented Logistics. No one does it better. So don’t start the “private enterprise is always better than government myth.” No one but no one–not even Walmart– does logistics like the US Army. So IF they want, they can handle this sort of thing BETTER than Walmart and cheaper ’cause they don’t have to make a profit.

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