Last December, the aftermath of the tsunami that devastated parts of Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries was countered by waves of sympathy and relief from around the world.
Yale prides itself as a global university, and this institution — along with countless student organizations — quickly organized efforts on campus to raise money for the helpless victims of this terrible natural catastrophe.
Yet I wonder whether this intractably global perspective is sometimes unfortunate for Yale, considering the great zeal of its students to affect positive change wherever they direct their gaze. Just this week, category-four Hurricane Katrina slammed into the southeastern United States, devastating the homes of millions and causing billions of dollars of damage. Yet Yale has been mainly silent in the wake of the terrible destruction and the deepening emergency there, despite the fact that many students at Yale hail from the parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that are now suffering most.
To be sure, the total destruction of Hurricane Katrina may pale in comparison to that inflicted by the tsunami of last year, in which over 100,000 people died and millions of others were left homeless. Certainly, Yale students cannot hope to alleviate every natural disaster worldwide.
But early reports from Louisiana and Mississippi suggest that the effects will be considerable: The city of New Orleans, home to 1.4 million people, is now being evacuated completely and will likely remain uninhabitable for a month or more as 12 feet of water are pumped out of low-lying areas; parts of coastal Mississippi have been decimated by Katrina’s 145 mph winds, and much of the central Gulf Coast will be without electrical power and clean water for weeks. Bodies are afloat in the streets. Armed bands of looters are breaking into New Orleans businesses, hospitals and homes. Lawlessness has gripped the metro area, and several people have reportedly committed suicide in the Louisiana Superdome, where safe refuge has given way to overtaxed toilet facilities, mass evacuations to Houston, Texas, and little promise of homes to return to.
As if the humanitarian crisis weren’t enough, Yale and New Haven are likely to feel the economic effects of Katrina down the road: Gulf oil production is at a standstill and the port of New Orleans is virtually destroyed. Lost tax revenues from the tourism and gambling industries will tally in the billions, hampering resources for cleanup and reconstruction. A major economic engine of the southeastern U.S. has been brought to its knees over the past three days, and with it, the livelihoods and homes of Yalies from southern Louisiana and Mississippi. And through late yesterday, only silence from New Haven.
A perspective on the world that transcends Yale, New Haven and the United States is to the great credit of Yale University and its students. But inaction in the face of a catastrophe so close to home raises questions about whether it is possible to be too farsighted in how we allocate our humanity and allow ourselves to be moved to action.
It is true that the United States is well-equipped to deal with natural disasters of this kind. And the Gulf Coast has certainly seen its share of hurricanes. But that does not mean recovery will be easy for either the relief organizations or the victims of this act of nature. Hurricane Katrina will prove to be one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. Pictures of affected areas suggest that cleanup and rebuilding will take months, if not years. The need has never been greater.
The outpouring of sympathy and aid for last year’s tsunami included special fund-raising events, clothing collection drives and the simple act of making others realize the urgency of the problem. Yesterday’s e-mail to Yale College and Graduate School students from Deans Butler and Salovey is a much-needed first step toward mobilizing Yalies’ relentless care and concern for their fellow students and those in need. But exhortations for action can only go far. Though it is early in the school year, student organizations must now show the great potential that has made Yale a university of worldwide repute and apply it to where it is needed so close to home.
Hank Greenberg, who graduated from Yale in 2005, grew up in New Orleans.