Storms and quake leave patchwork of hope, grief and questions

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Every year sees disasters that bring tragedy, but 2005 seemed to bring more of nature's fury.

The Katrina-soaked carpets inside the New Orleans convention center squished when you walked on them.

And I was running, trying to keep up with a frightened man who said several people had died in the heat and he was going to show me their bodies. He pushed ahead, but I kept getting waylaid, stopped by one after another of the homeless and helpless spread across the cavernous hall: families clutching garbage bags stuffed with belongings, tourists with brightly colored rollaway luggage, babies and elderly lying asleep on sheets spread across the wet floor.

Finally, the doors to the back room where my guide said he'd seen the corpses -- locked. No answers there. One woman came up, in tears: her mother was elderly, was ill, was dying. She begged for help, to tell someone.

I wrote down her name.

Six weeks later, in the mountains of earthquake-shattered Pakistan, an old woman counted her grandchildren, her thin, leathery hand signaling to me that one was about knee high, a few more about waist high, another as tall as her chest. Her eyes focused intently and then wandered off, her voice faded in and out.

She said what sounded like the same words, over and over. The translator summed it up: They're all gone. None survived.

She cried but no tears came.

A half-hour later, a doctor grabbed my arm and pulled me into the field hospital tent to see a surgery. I took notes. On another cot, three doctors and nurses cut a hand-sized piece of flesh from a woman's lower back to clean a wound -- the grandmother I had just spoken with.

Like every year, this one saw natural disasters bring tragedy beyond measure. But 2005 seemed to bring more of nature's fury -- hurricanes one after the other, the South Asian earthquake, the recovery from last December's tsunami that swept hundreds of thousands out to sea all around the Indian Ocean.

The country, the world is still trying to sort out these disasters: What could have been prevented, whether help could have come sooner, how to rebuild.

Visceral response

For me it's a bit different -- closer, more visceral, after covering both disasters in my job as a reporter for The Associated Press. The hurricane left my sneakers caked with rancid mud that I spent hours scraping and washing off. The dust from the earthquake clung to my T-shirts, pants, boots -- I left them all in a corner for nearly two weeks before hauling them off to a washing machine.

The memories will last a lot longer -- the smells, the sounds, the faces of those caught in the catastrophes. So will the questions I brought back. How is it that some can bear incredible grief and still move on while others simply can't? Some answered disaster with fury, others with resolve, others just collapsed.

Some broke down; some made do. One New Orleans woman built a ramshackle shelter for her and her young son, draping a tarp over a few chairs on the sidewalk across from the convention center. She'd rather be out on the pavement, she said, than in the center with thousands crowded together.

There also was sympathy, cooperation, kindness. Small groups made forays into nearby shops and stores, returning with bottled water, chips, chickens and sausage that others cooked on pillaged grills. One elderly woman in a wheelchair, waiting along with thousands more outside the center, smiled and grabbed my hand. She thanked me for my questions.

At a nursing home in the Garden District, elderly patients waited calmly in wheelchairs to be slowly carried onto air-conditioned buses to evacuate the city. "It'll be all right," 83-year-old Mary Roberts said to her seatmate.

Maybe there's only so much chaos people can take before they simply look ahead.

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