It’s been very difficult not to be affected by the video and stories coming out of the Gulf Coast. When I first heard the comparisons to either the Asian tsunami or Hiroshima, I thought it was an utterly ridiculous analogy. As the shocking video began to roll in on Tuesday, though, it seemed increasinly apt. I believe that I, like many well-meaning people, viewed the events of last December through the prism of living in suburban America. Sure, the tsunami was an unbelievably powerful force. But those were third world nations affected. An equally powerful wave wouldn’t do nearly that kind of damage in the States, where we have rigid building codes and the finest building materials. We would never see anything like entire cities swept away, would we? It turns out we really aren’t so advanced after all. Images of casinos moved intact from one side of a road to another. Cargo containers strewn a quarter mile from the docks. River barges washed inland. High rise hotels shredded and looking more like something from Beirut circa 1982. Unfathomable.

The situation in New Orleans has become the dominant image of Katrina. As Keith Olbermann soberly assessed the situation Tuesday night, he reminded viewers that an America city the size of New Orleans had not been completely evacuated since the Civil War. Tuesday night it was still just a possibility that would be the case. Now officials are trying to figure out how to abandon the 30th (give or take) largest city in the country. Unthinkable. And now government officials are quietly wondering how they get all that water out, how they rebuild the levees, how they decontaminate a city that will spends days, if not weeks, stewing in a toxic sludge that contains bodies, industrial waste, sewage, and all sorts of other nasty stuff. How do you flush out the lakes and rivers, where all that water must someday go? Will New Orleans, as we knew it, ever exist again?

What floors me most is the raw scope of the aftermath. How on earth do government and businesses decide how and where to start the clean-up? Who makes that decision? Do you remove debris first, and leave things like electricity and sanitary services for later? Do you pick spots of importance and try to get everything done there, and slowly work your way out? Again, I tend to view storm damage through the experiences I’ve had, those being wind and ice storms in the Midwest. Here, when there’s a particularly bad storm (see the Kansas City ice storm of 2003), at worst you’re looking at not having power for 2-3 weeks. Even then, chances are you have neighbors, friends, family members who will have power that you can spend time with while waiting for your services to be repaired. And you still have your job, access to food and water, etc. What happens when everyone for miles has been completely wiped out too? Where do you go? What do you do with your life while months, maybe years of repairs are being made? Do you pack up your family like the Joads and head someplace else, hoping to start a new life? It’s almost too much to fathom.

I think what’s worst about the events of this week is how they may get worse. Tensions are getting very short in New Orleans and other cities where people have lost everything, are trapped, and have few, if any, basic services. I used to read novels that were based in a post-nuclear war world, where lawlessness ruled and the most basic things in life were the subject of intense battles. This week, those scenarios don’t seem that far-fetched if those cities aren’t cleared out quickly.

The only bright spot is we’re living in the richest, most powerful country in the world. We may scuffle when it comes to doing small things, but when we get big challenges, we excel. It might take years, but things will get fixed down south. What we won’t get past, though, is this first-hand reminder on how powerful nature is and how tenuous our mastery over the planet truly is. Be well.