Thursday, September 01, 2005

Getting ahead of disaster

The problem with a disaster like Katrina is that it is literally too large and too profound for the average person to wrap their brain around. Consequently, the media now resembles a bunch of blind men describing an elephant, only we're doing it around the clock.

Making matters worse, in our rush to catch up with events, in our need to provide "hurricane porn" 24/7, we've overlooked another important part of our job as journalists: Probing for meaning.

The unplugging of New Orleans from the American economy -- and the absorption of at least half a million long-term refugees -- promises to be one of the most transformative events of the early 21st century. The implications of this mind-boggling task will affect every American in hundreds of ways, large and small.

If there was ever a time for a disaster wiki ... if there was ever a call for the smartest people in the country to get in communication and start comparing notes ... this might be it.

When considered in the light of an American moment that was already feeling rather precarious, the ongoing disaster in the Gulf represents an enormous threat to our way of life. Traditions, institutions, relationships and expectations that made perfect sense on Sunday are now either history or utterly unsure. And we're not thinking about them.

A year from now, we will look back at these days and say "If we had only thought of X."

It's our job as journalists to start thinking about X today. And one way to do that is to start asking everyone we know -- and many people we don't -- "What might X be?"

P.S.: Here's the e-mail I just sent out to about 90 people, many of them local, many of them spread out across around the country:
Dear all:

I am casting as wide a net as I can today, trying to get as many thoughtful responses as I can to this question:

"Regarding the long-term flooding of New Orleans, what so-far unpublicized secondary effects are likely to have the most profound, transformative and currently unanticipated effect on the nation as a whole?"

Some secondary effects, such as the rising cost of gasoline, are getting lots of attention. Others, like the destruction of the Gulf Coast shrimp fishery, have yet to be examined. I am interested in what people with different perspectives and insights would foresee as important issues affecting us all that we have yet to consider in the wake of this disaster.

I hope to combine the best and most thought-provoking responses into a piece to run in (my newspaper) in Charleston, S.C.

If you have a thought that you wish to share, I will be greatly appreciative. If you have any friends or colleagues that you think might offer an interesting response to this, please consider passing it on to them.

Thank you,

Daniel Conover