The computer era's plethora of storage media - the millions upon millions of hard drives storing information - have given the major calamities of our time, like the current devastation in New Orleans, an eerie tinge.
After the destruction of New York's World Trade Center on 9/11, the whole sad story unfolded via the Internet. But even today, four years later, there are Web pages that describe the great time you and your family can have visiting the WTC (http://www.panynj.gov/pr/54-00.html). A page describing the entertainment options at the WTC in the summer of 2000 is still on the Web either as a "memorial," or a historical archive of past press releases. Regardless, just seeing it show up in your browser has to hurt.
Only weeks into the New Orleans disaster, that same eerie mix of happy old and tragic new is the lot of that city too. There are still plenty of sites where you can vicariously experience the "old" New Orleans (http://www.experienceneworleans.com/library/tourism.html), but now a new breed of Web pages has been cropping up, detailing the city's tragic fate.
Once upon a time, historians wrote history, but now it's being chronicled as it happens, often by people who are living it. The Wikipedia collaborative Web encyclopedia already has a fairly comprehensive page on the history of Hurricane Katrina (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Katrina) - from its beginnings as a tropical wave in the Caribbean to its ferocious stage off the Gulf coast.
According to this page, Katrina was the third most intense hurricane to hit the United States in recorded history - but the only one to hit such a large urban area. The fact that New Orleans is several meters below sea level (http://ask.yahoo.com/20041005.html) was its undoing. According to this page (which I can't believe hasn't been yanked by Yahoo yet), because of the way the levee system protecting the city from floods works, "Some scientists predict that by the year 2100, the 'City That Care Forgot' will be under water." Indeed, it was the failure of the levee system (http://www.nola.com/ hurricane/popup/nolalevees_jpg.html) protecting New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain (http://www.stphilipneri.org/teacher/pontchartrain/) that did the city in.
TRAGEDIES ARE about people, not just places. Rough estimates now say that as many as 20,000 may have been killed in the floods - but the final number may not be known for months, since it will take that long to drain the polluted water that inundated the city (http://www.cnn.com/2005/US/09/02/katrina.dewatering/). As in the aftermath of 9/11, many Web sites dedicated to searching out the missing have sprung up. If you have friends from the area you're concerned about, check out the list at http://wx.gulfcoastnews.com/katrina/status.aspx, where you can search some 50,000 messages by name or location.
Craigslist, a popular bulletin board system covering many US cities, has not only message boards to track down missing people, but also information on temporary homes, jobs and other absorption-related information. There are also lots of links at http://katrinahelp.info/wiki/index.php/Main_Page, with lists of survivors, sites to post messages and opportunities to donate and help victims.
Speaking of donations, it is not uncommon in large-scale tragedies for scam artists to come up with ways to steal from well-meaning donors, compounding the tragedy and leaving fewer resources for those who need them. The agencies listed at http://katrinahelp.info/wiki/index.php/Aid_Agencies are legit. The Federation has set up a national donation site for all local American Jewish communities who want to help, with a link to the United Jewish Community Humanitarian Relief Fund at http://www.ujc.org.
Usually it's difficult to get information directly from the scene of a major catastrophe, especially when the communication infrastructure has been destroyed, but as it happens, there is one Internet provider still operating in downtown New Orleans and even transmitting video, thanks to the financial excesses of the Internet bubble era. A number of brave holdouts remained behind, and thanks to a fiber optic cable buried deep below street level in New Orleans (set up by none other than Internet scamsters Global Crossing), the dry world can read the daily Interdictor blog (http://www.livejournal.com/users/interdictor), as well as view a live video feed of the area outside the company's headquarters (coverage is spotty and goes on and off at random, as is to be expected in an emergency).
You can link to more video and audio streams at http://wiki.nola-intel.org/index.php/Main_Page, as well as link to sites with satellite imagery of what a partially submerged Gulf Coast looks like. Photos cataloging the city's misfortune are available at http://tampabusiness.com/directnic and at http://www.nola-intel.org, which also has links to blogs by refugees from the city, with harrowing stories.
Rebuilding New Orleans - if indeed it can be rebuilt - is going to be among the greatest domestic challenge America has ever had to face; insurance companies estimate that it will cost as much as $100 billion. But is it worth the effort? Not as long as global warming hasn't been tackled. Suppressed at first, the political angle quickly took front and center, as leftists blamed US President George W. Bush (http:// blamebush.typepad.com) for not providing aid quickly enough, mostly because the victims were poor and/or black (http://www.whatreallyhappened.com/). But maybe the thing is bigger than Bush - or bigger than any politician, says Whitley Streiber, who along with US radio personality Art Bell authored last year's The Coming Global Superstorm, upon which the 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow was based (http://www.imdb.com/ title/tt0319262/trivia).
Katrina is the first of many more "global balancing" storms to come, a reaction to man's abuse of the environment. And according to http://www.matrixinstitute.com, New Orleans and many other American cities are destined to remain under water for a long time to come as the environment "fixes" the damage wrought by man. In which case, one should pay special attention to the article at this lengthy address, http://www.forbes.com/realestate/2005/08/30/safestplaces-insurance-realestate-cx_sc_0830home_ls.html, where you'll find a Forbes magazine article on the places in the US least likely to get walloped by a natural disaster. Of course, that doesn't guarantee you won't be hit by war, terrorism, crime, plague - the list goes on. Maybe we should reach out to the people of New Orleans as they pray for their futures - while we pray for ours.