We have our excuses. Many of us still haven’t set up our televisions yet, so we haven’t been watching the round-the-clock coverage on CNN. Not to mention that we’re busy — with the start of classes, catching up with friends after the summer, unpacking our boxes. And after all, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are pretty far away.
But it is still striking that one of America’s largest cities — among other places — has been all but destroyed by a hurricane, and yet there are few signs that many students on campus are paying attention. In the dining halls and between classes, Hurricane Katrina has been, at most, a topic most Yalies consider only in passing. The idea that some of our classmates are now homeless does not appear to have sunk in.
Perhaps we are still struggling to take stock of what has happened. The sight of bus convoys transporting thousands of people to Texas is almost unbelievable, as is watching a cultural landmark like New Orleans reduced to martial law. Many of us have friends at universities like Tulane, or may have applied there ourselves — yet as we express surprise at having classes postponed for a few hours next Thursday, it is hard to imagine what is like for that university to consider canceling its semester before it begins.
But at a school where plenty of us can speak with excitement about how residents of Louisiana and Mississippi might vote in a Senate race, we also have an obligation to pay attention when those residents’ lives are uprooted. This hurricane is not simply a regional event — it is a national tragedy, and one that merits a national response. That response should come in part from the University itself, but it must originate first and foremost with us.
The University’s official reaction to a catastrophe — whether a hurricane or a terrorist attack — must happen on two fronts. Yale should ensure that it offers immediate support to students directly affected by a tragedy, including counseling services and assistance in contacting family members. And as an institution with nationwide reach, Yale must use its considerable resources to assist the victims, whether in coordinating relief funds or offering the expertise of its faculty.
In a campuswide e-mail from Deans Peter Salovey and Jon Butler yesterday, the University gave its assurance that the proper response, if a day or two late, is being made. The rest is up to us. We must prove that we don’t see destruction in the country we live in as an entirely foreign event. In the wake of past catastrophes, Yale students have almost instantly become engaged, whether in organizing community events or planning relief efforts. We have faith that in the coming days and weeks, Yale will be an active participant in what will surely be an international effort to rebuild.
In the hometowns and neighborhoods of some of our classmates, there are, in the words of Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, “places that are no longer there.” For choosing to ignore that, there is no excuse.