Mississippi Maiming: The World As Our Witness


For HumanistNetworkNews.org
June 30, 2010

Nearly five years after our family offered the Humanist magazine the chronicle of our experiences on the Mississippi Gulf Coast before, during and after hurricane Katrina, as the tragic natural event took thousands of lives and devastated our community in an eviscerating dual attack of wind and water, I again find myself awake before the sun staring at a computer screen depicting a satellite view of the Gulf of Mexico. 

In my heart is the same mesmerized warning and ominous foreboding. 

But, instead of an enormous ripping saw blade of destruction bearing down from the sky above, we now find ourselves in the path of a monstrous morass spreading its poisoned tendrils of decay and corruption from below. 

Tortuous in its slow, methodical and wicked current emanating from a deep wound in the earth, I recognize that this new death dealer of spewing oil will certainly not be finished with us in a day or two so that we will then have a reprieve to pick ourselves up, find our injured, bury our dead and rebuild.

Not this time, no matter how many desperately pious proclamations from prayerful politicians were offered to the wrathful gods of man in order to comfort their constituent flock.

The satellite imagery now shows trajectories of oil that will reach our Biloxi shores within days. This fact combined with the knowledge that we are past the summer solstice and within the weather pattern of tropical storms (and worse) speaks volumes regarding the very real potential for this disaster to grow exponentially.

I sip my coffee, look around the shadowy reconstructed den and become awash with a sense of déjà vu as my wife, a wildlife and coast watcher volunteer badge clipped to her waist, loads up the clipboard, paper, cell phone and other supplies into her backpack. As she heads for the front door, I pause to recognize something nearly forgotten. That was the same door that led us into the apocalypse of Katrina, as powerful winds tore away the walls around us and we fled with our children amidst flying debris to a neighbor's home.

I quietly ponder what world we would now be entering as we passed through the same doorway and left for the Biloxi shoreline. 

This morning's weather was much calmer than yesterday's showers and churning breakers. Today the water was like a looking glass darkly mirroring the sky from beyond the horizon. As we start walking west along the water line, everything seemed normal in our silent reverie. We didn't make it far, however, before we began to detect the strong and familiar smell of death and decay. Looking around, we spotted what looked like a towel up on top of the sand berm and almost thought nothing of it until I went to take a closer look in the low light of early morning.

When I slowly began to discern the twisted feathery wing of a large bird, my heart sank. Once we got a closer look, it was obviously a large, slick and darkened brown pelican. 

In that quiet moment as we began to document the death, I began to recall my many experiences with these symbolic birds of our Gulf Coast.

In the 1980s, while taking what was basically a randomly selected elective college course, I unexpectedly found myself becoming deeply involved in a project that was much larger than merely striving for a vocational certificate or credit to fulfill a degree. Soon I was outside of the box of conventional rote education, traveling the coast and waterways to study the life cycle and real threats to our endangered brown pelican species. 

To me, these modern pterodactyls are still the monitor that beckons us to recognize the condition of our natural world and our place within it as human beings.

A couple of decades later, the brown pelicans made a thriving return and, I'm personally proud to say, were removed from the endangered species list, thanks to the intervention and proactive efforts of the same beings who threatened them in the first place. The deeper lesson learned from the plight of the pelicans is simple and profound and can be applied in every circumstance:

It can be done.

But we have to be personally culpable and we must put all of the energy of the fine humanistic principles, morals and ethics we proclaim into action and actually do it. After the experience of Katrina, our family has discovered that these principles have been tested in real terms and are empirically shown to produce the results we all aspire to achieve.

In moments like these, it is completely impossible not to think about how to start putting things right again, in spite of the enormity of the task. 

Where do we start?   

There is no real need for public outreach, education and awareness about the cause of this disaster. The irresponsibility of our leaders, ambiguous and unapplied regulations, errant and corrupt regulators, and the egregious malice that comes from corporations bypassing our very own human survival for the profit of shareholders is well known here and elsewhere.

Some may choose to fall to their knees in supplication and wait in the gallows of their own homes as our ancestral traditions, thriving sea life, cultural identity and the very ecosystem that sustains us is choked off in toxic muck and assassinated before a world of witnesses.

In my continued view, however, our real hope still resides in the awareness that we, as a human family and community of people with assorted skills and life experiences, can help through our participatory humanism. We do so by caring for, cleaning and healing the survivors; by supporting volunteer efforts; and by documenting the level of suffering for our future generations.

Most importantly, we start to put things right again by unifying our voice and demanding that all of the right lessons are learned by those responsible for every single life destroyed, every mistake made and every intentional failure to take simple precautions to prevent such a calamity–and that they are held directly accountable without statutory, political or punitive ambiguity.

So, this is where it all matters again, my friends. 

Here at the nexus of the unfathomable and the profane, with the power of our human family–responsible for whatever we decide will be the final outcome.

Our family and friends on the Mississippi Gulf Coast know the resolution to which our hearts are drawn and we know many more of you will join us yet again in this uninvited and dire task.

Already we find ourselves in good company.

Since this article was written, oil has washed ashore Biloxi beach. The Department of Environmental Quality cleanup crews have not yet arrived.

The Great Southern Humanist Society, an affiliate of the American Humanist Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, was represented at a Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Service oil spill response training. Their meetup.com group features updates about their disaster response efforts and the developing situation in Biloxi.


Steve, Terresa, and their children Ryan, Erin and Connor are part of a community service group of humanists, atheists, agnostics and other non-religious freethinkers from within the affected areas who brought comfort to those traumatized by the tragedy of Katrina and who also continue to organize and participate in volunteer service, blood drives, food drives, toy drives, clean up events and educational outreach efforts supporting atheists and humanists in the region. Steve is a veteran law enforcement officer and Terresa is a kindergarten teacher's assistant. Their daughter Erin, president of the 7th Grade Builders Club, was recently recognized for her work as a youth volunteer by Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway, and the 7th Grade Builders Club was awarded Volunteer Youth Group of the Year.