Columnists > Voices

We have no lasting city

What happens when the props of a civilization are kicked away?

Issue: "Katrina: Week 2," Sept. 17, 2005

We've lost our city," said Marc Morial, former mayor of New Orleans. "I fear it's potentially like Pompeii." Indeed, Hurricane Katrina struck only three days after the 1,926th anniversary of the volcanic eruption that destroyed that ancient Roman city.

As it happens, an exhibit of artifacts from Pompeii is traveling through North America, on display in Ottawa, the Canadian capital city. "Tales from an Eruption," an Italian show, arrives in Chicago at the Field Museum Oct. 22 through March 26, with further stops in Toronto and that refuge of storm survivors, Houston. The exhibits show a day in the life of ordinary Romans-Aug. 26, a.d. 79-at the moment they along with all of their wealth and possessions were buried in fiery ash, which made ghastly castings of their bodies.

Perhaps a closer comparison would be with the Greek city of Helike on the Gulf of Corinth. In 373 b.c., when Plato was alive, an earthquake followed by a tidal wave buried the city in water. For centuries, travelers spoke of looking down into the floor of the sea and getting glimpses of the city of Helike.

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The sudden destruction of cities is fairly common throughout history. An earthquake in 1700 b.c. destroyed the great city state of Knossos in Crete, bringing the Minoan civilization to an end. Many other ancient cities met this end, destroyed by earthquakes or floods. In the Bible, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah directly, and Jeremiah predicts how Babylon will be cast down and laments over the ruins of Jerusalem. In the Middle Ages, the English port of Dunwich slid into the sea, and the rich German city of Rungholt was submerged forever by a tidal wave. More recently, here in the United States, Chicago burned up on Oct. 8, 1871, and the earthquake of April 18, 1906, leveled San Francisco.

When Katrina struck the Gulf Coast and the levees in Louisiana broke, thousands of 21st-century Americans found themselves back in the ancient world. The electricity went out-meaning no lights, no air conditioning, no refrigeration. The surging water broke the interstate highway into pieces and submerged the backroads. Automobiles that were not washed away had no gasoline, rendering our transportation system useless. Land lines, cell phones, computers all stopped working, bringing down our vaunted communication systems. Turning on a tap to get fresh water-something we had all taken for granted-was impossible, as were showers, sanitation, and toilets.

The hurricane stripped away the thin veneer of modernity. Lacking food, water, medicine, and basic health care, people had to struggle to survive. And many didn't, as dead bodies piled up, with no one bothering to tend to them.

And, more terrible than the hurricane, in the absence of any external restraining authority, human sin broke out. Looters plundered at will. Rapists preyed on helpless women. Survivors crammed into the Superdome and the Convention Center, enduring privation and filth, were terrorized by roaming thugs. Gangs attacked hospitals looking for drugs. Gunmen fired at helicopters and rescue teams.

Of course, the sudden reduction to a state of nature also produced heroism, generosity, and sacrifice. One woman, deprived and suffering, told a CNN reporter, "People are trying to remain civilized." When the props are kicked away, civilization has to be internalized.

The Katrina catastrophe laid bare the human condition. We are fragile, dependent, and fallen. At any moment, we could lose everything we have, including our lives. Our civilization-for all of our power, technology, and wealth-can be swept away, as has that of the Minoans and the Romans of Pompeii.

Christians have always been taught to put their trust in God alone, and not in possessions, achievements, or the kingdoms of this world, all of which will pass away. "For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come" (Hebrews 13:14).

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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