Katrina: Where Are the Great Words in this Time of Darkness?

Where in the world are the great words leaders are supposed to utter in these times of darkness? Why has this tragedy made it so difficult for leaders to speak with the clarity that seemed to come effortlessly from New York in those dark September days?

So far the only true words spoken in this disaster have come from Jefferson Parish President, Aaron Broussard. He said, “For God’s sake, shut up and send us somebody.”

Now contrast that with President Bush, “Brownie you’re doing a heck of a job.” Or “Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott's house…there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch.” Or “…I'm confident that, with time, you can get your life back in order, new communities will flourish, the great city of New Orleans will be back on its feet…” The only trouble with those words is the image of a man in rigor mortis -- arms stretched to the heavens -- flashes before the screen.

There are others who have tried to say something. “The federal government deserves an F.” “I want to thank the President.” “We’re working as a team.” And those obvious statements about global warming and the deep class and racial divisions that exist in this country seemed so political as people took their final breaths.

The words just seem empty and forced. It’s as if Dylan’s line from “A Hard Rain’s-A Gonna Fall” has come to life. We’ve seen “a thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken.”

When tragedy hits this country, writing the right words is tough. There are spin people in the room. There are policy people in the room. And there is the principal in the room who wants to say what is right -- who wants to find that line between clarity and compassion. It is not easy for leaders and their staffs are often finding their way through the madness at the same time we are.

It’s not an excuse for what’s happened. What the government allowed to happen was criminal and their incompetence should stand trial at the ballot box starting in 2006. All I can say is Thank God for the people.

But the words this time around seem more unsettling than most. So what’s happened? Why was Mayor Giuliani able to say, “Our world has changed forever?” And not blather on about how great FEMA is? How could the president stand on the rubble and shout, “And pretty soon the people who did this are gonna hear from all of us!” And when Mayor Giuliani was asked about how many dead, he answered, “It will be more than we can bear.”

Perhaps this is the upside of surprise. At the beginning, there’s no time to point fingers because you’re so busy taking another hand in need. But I think in Giuliani’s statement is where our problem rests -- we haven’t dealt with the dead.

On September 11th, we watched everyone die. We saw the planes hit. We saw people jump. We saw the towers fall. We saw the Pentagon in flames. And we saw the smoking field in Shanksville.

In the last seven days, we’ve seen glimpses: the lone body in a wheel chair, draped with a blanket, the one in the water, the body on the overpass. We’ve been given hints of what’s to come -- thousands, maybe more.

But because of what we’ve seen: the chaos, the squalor and the suffering at the Superdome, the looting, and the evacuees, it’s as if we’ve skipped the sad part -- the personal part. We’ve seen horror and have already gone to who will pay before we’ve mourned those who’ve paid with their lives already.

It took Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s death to get the flags lowered to half-staff. We still haven’t had a national day of mourning or even a joint session of Congress to talk about stitching together our country. And we still haven’t had a leader stand in the middle of the ruins of Mississippi and Alabama and shout never again -- stand with a bull horn on top of the Superdome to shout never again and mean it.

Once again, I don’t think we’re ready for what’s next. I think what’s to come is unimaginable.

Refrigerator trucks are filled and headed for St. Gabriel. It makes you pause to think that the Louisiana Governor is trying to buy land to create a cemetery for the hurricane victims -- a cemetery of their own. It’s nice to know that we might be spared the sight of a bulldozer filling in a mass grave, here.

Our fellow citizens should not be deprived of their final dignity. I hope we can find a way to ensure that each person has a head stone of their own -- marked or unmarked. So please, Washington, the Supreme Court can wait. The estate tax can wait. Sticking it to oil companies for sticking it to us, can wait.

Washington, please listen “…send us somebody.” They need more help for rescues. They need more help for the survivors so they can rebuild their lives. And they need more help because it’s time. It’s time to see what’s under the water and beneath the rubble. It’s time for all of us to bring out the dead so we can begin saying the truth, starting with, “We miss them.”