As I feared the first day the levees broke, Hurricane Katrina will turn out to be the worst environmental catastrophe in modern American history, far dwarfing Hurricane's Andrew and Camilla and equaling, if not surpassing, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 in its destructive impact. The flooding, and physical destruction of a historic American city, coupled with the complete destruction of homes, stores, businesses, roads and bridges along 80 miles of Mississippi coastline presents a humanitarian challenge of unprecedented proportions, with consequences that will be felt for years by those who lost loved ones, homes, businesses, jobs, and any sense of comfort or security.

But this catastrophe also reveals, far more than September 11, how deeply divided our nation is and how far our social fabric has been strained, not only by the war in Iraq, but by policies which have widened the gap between rich and poor and left many poor people in American feeling marginalized and alienated.

When the fully tally of the dead from this storm and its aftermath, which includes those who will die from diseases contracted due to heat, starvation and contaminated water as well as the storm itself, we will see what TV photos of rescue operations are revealing-that the greatest loss of life, and the greatest suffering, was occurring among Louisiana and Mississippi's black poor. Look who we see wading through the floodwaters in New Orleans streets, look who we see lining up to get into the Superdome, look who we see being taken off roofs. And look who we see being arrested for "looting" Unlike September 11, which revealed a city united in pain, and grief, and determination to rebuild; this crisis reveals communities which are profoundly divided by race and class, and in which the black poor in particular, bear levels of hardship which far exceed those of any other group.

Not since the great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 have the economic and racial isolation of the black poor been revealed in such stark relief by an environmental catastrophe. What the images Americans on the evening news reveal about who is dying, who is trapped, who is without food, who is drinking contaminated water and yes, who is looting, should give all of us pause. Is this what the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement fought to achieve, a society where many black people are as trapped and isolated by their poverty as they were by segregation laws?

One other thought comes to mind. If the American armed forces, including the National Guard and army corps of engineers, were not bogged down in a needless, unprovoked war in Iraq, would the response to this catastrophe have been quicker?. Would the levee repair have taken place more quickly and effectively, more food and medicine delivered, more troops sent to preserve order?. When all is said and done, many Americans will question whether the response to this catastrophe was hampered by the strain the Iraq war has exerted on our military's rapid response ability in the United States.

I make these observations not in any way to detract by the heroism of tens of thousands of rescue personnel and ordinary people who have saved, and continue to save lives through their actions. Every one of us needs to give them, and the people of the affected states, or complete support, economically, politically, spiritually, and by any act of personal generosity that can ease someone's suffering.

But we also cannot shrink from what this tragedy reveals about us as a nation at this stage in history. If September 11 showed the power of a nation united in response to a devastating attack; Hurricane Katrina reveals the fault lines of a region, and a nation, rent by profound social divisions.

Dr Mark Naison
August 31, 2005