Americans will respond in time of need

EDITORIAL: In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, many tough questions about aid, rebuilding and protection against natural disasters must be asked.

Whenever and wherever disaster strikes, Americans are always quick to respond. Whether it’s a terrorist attack on our nation’s largest city or a devastating tsunami halfway around the world, our natural inclination is to pitch in and help in any way we can — with donations of money, food, clothing or, if we can afford it, our most precious commodity: time.
   In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, perhaps the worst natural disaster to strike the United States in a century, organizations like the Red Cross are already dispatching volunteers from every corner of the country — including a sizable contingent from central New Jersey — to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. There, they are providing vital assistance to victims and relief workers who are still reeling from not only the devastating direct hit but the ever-worsening indirect consequences of the killer storm.
   Untold numbers of Katrina’s victims are homeless, and will likely remain so for weeks or months to come. Many life-sustaining items we normally take for granted — electricity, potable water, food — are in critically short supply. Entire neighborhoods are under water. Hospitals are operating, to the extent they can, on emergency power and skeleton staffs. Mortuaries are overwhelmed. The threat of disease grows with each passing day. It is as if the greater New Orleans area has been transformed overnight from a vibrant American city into a Third World disaster area.
   There will be no dearth of opportunities in the days ahead for all of us to make meaningful contributions to the relief effort. Already, the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Catholic Charities and countless other religious, civic and charitable organizations have joined the American Red Cross in soliciting donations of money, food and clothing. With area schools opening this week , we fully expect to see large numbers of energetic, enterprising, caring youngsters launching any number of creative initiatives — bake sales, dances, walk-a-thons and the like — to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
   And we fully expect the community to respond, as it always does. Like Sept. 11, this is a cause that requires no effort to raise awareness — we are all painfully aware, through vivid media coverage, of what has happened — and calls, instead, for an overwhelming display of charity from a sympathetic and compassionate people. As a nation, we’ll need to dig down — and dig down deep — to help those who are plainly unable in this time of extreme need to help themselves.
   But then what? Beyond attending to the human needs of those suffering from the blow of Hurricane Katrina, what does the future hold for New Orleans and other cities and towns along the Gulf Coast? How much effort — and money — should go into redeveloping communities that lie below sea level in an area prone to tropical disturbances? How much protection can — or should — they be afforded against acts of nature that will inevitably strike them in the future? And whose responsibility will it be to undertake this redevelopment and provide this protection — the public sector, private enterprise or some combination thereof?
   These are not idle questions. Here in New Jersey, we ask them every time a Nor’easter blows away another strip of sandy beach at one of our shore resorts. In Trenton and Lambertville, we asked them earlier this year when floods drove residents from their low-lying homes and businesses along the Delaware River. But we never really seem to come up with any definitive answers; instead, our policies and strategies are dictated by how much muscle politicians in the affected area can flex — and how much money they can extract from federal and state sources to repair the damage. Whether it is in the broader public interest to spend this money for this purpose is rarely, if ever, considered.
   In and around New Orleans, we have no preconception of what the answers to these questions will or should be. We only know we’ll be disappointed — and the American public will be ill served — if they aren’t asked.