NOTIONS: The power of nature and the perils of human nature

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Some colleagues and I drove south into Evansville last week just as the remnants of Hurricane Katrina blew in from the north. As we pulled into the parking lot of our destination, we watched workers battling wind and rain on the walk from their cars to the office.

Twice, we saw sturdy umbrellas, held nearly horizontal against the oncoming gale, collapse upon their users. The drenched souls fumbled with the resulting maze of metal and fabric as they struggled across the flooded walkway, through the revolving door and into the building.

We drove home that afternoon through more downpours. That evening and the next morning, I watched television news reports, read newspapers and surfed the Web, finding story after story, image after image of Katrina’s toll in Mississippi and Louisiana.

The words and pictures told of Mother Nature’s might. But even more, they told of human nature’s self-inflicted plight.

I saw dramatic helicopter rescues of people stranded on rooftops surrounded by floodwaters. I saw people fighting with one another inside the Superdome. I saw people looting stores and homes-taking what they needed and wanted while authorities were distracted by life-threatening emergencies. I saw people walking, zombie-like, through filthy water infested with snakes, sewage and human remains.

I saw politicians on TV, too.

Some offered “I told you so’s,” saying they had sought federal money to shore up levees and better protect New Orleans, a city built below sea level, but the warnings hadn’t been heeded.

Some highlighted our interconnectedness in this country and on this planet-noting that the storm may have hit the U.S. Gulf Coast, but that the impact will ripple through the economy via oil and natural gas price hikes and higher insurance rates.

Many asked for federal government assistance, charitable contributions and volunteers.

And nearly all made clear their commitment to rebuild on the same vulnerable sites-setting the stage for a downward spiral of even more deaths, desecration and denial-of-reality a year, a decade or a century from now.

In the midst of this mayhem here at home came reports of more misery in Iraq. This time, during a pilgrimage of Shiites to mark the anniversary of the death of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, there was panic, a stampede and hundreds of people crushed and suffocated to death.

On the same day, the U.S. Census bureau reported that the U.S. poverty rate had risen once again. The report said it was the first time on record that household incomes failed to increase for five straight years.

A long time ago, when I was learning how to communicate effectively about public health and public safety, a wise woman told me that the biggest obstacle in my efforts

would be the human sense of invincibility.

Whether it’s persuading people to get out of the way of a hurricane, or to stop bringing babies into poverty, or to avoid packing tens of thousands of people into a tight space, or to wear a condom to prevent AIDS, or to lose weight to protect against a heart attack, or to wear a seat belt to guard against an accident, or to stop smoking to prevent lung cancer, or to stop driving mammoth vehicles to reduce energy demand, or to stop moving farther and farther from cities to reduce the need for new highways and new schools, folks repeatedly say, “Bad things can’t happen to me,” and “I’ll take my chances,” and “Even if the worst happens, someone will bail me out.”

And so we build cities by the sea that are ripe for flooding, and cities in the desert at risk of water shortages, and complain about the lack of federal funding.

We drive gas-guzzling cars, live in energy-sucking houses and complain about rising fuel costs.

We ride Harleys without wearing helmets, smoke cigarettes laced with carcinogens, have sex without condoms and complain about rising health costs.

And we loot stores and homes before the cameras of CNN, never thinking what the images of greed today will cost in charitable support tomorrow.

A few months ago, I went to dinner with my friend, Wes Janz. An architecture professor at Ball State University, Wes had just returned from Sri Lanka, where he, some fellow faculty members and some students helped begin reconstruction of a village damaged by the tsunami.

Wes showed me pictures and told me stories about Kalametiya. Thirty families with 190 people lived in this village by the sea. Eleven were killed by the big wave.

Weighing respect for nature against the stubbornness of human nature, the people of Kalametiya chose a site for their new village several kilometers from the shore. That meant more walking for the fishermen, more burden on the economy and less time with their families. But it would be safer and wiser.

I wonder if we Americans will ever consider that.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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