Far from home: Where's our wizard when we need him?


Think of the house you grew up in. Close your eyes and picture it: you walk up the driveway and feel a twinge in your stomach– so much of who you are is embodied in that house. There's the knob on the back door that your fingers grasped countless times, the bedroom window that framed the world beyond.

A few weeks ago, I stood in the mud of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, enveloped in a panorama of total destruction. Some driveways are visible, over there is someone's front walk– but where's the house?

The walkways are paths to nowhere– remnants of a former civilization. Precious few houses remain.

When the 17th street levee blew out, water gushed into the neighborhood so fast that houses were washed right off their foundations. Cars and trucks and buildings tumbled in the turbulence, most houses bashed to bits. A few of them landed intact but in odd places, like the middle of the street, with curtains still hanging in the windows.

The memory of one house haunts me more than the rest. At first glance, it's an ordinary small ranch, with pale-blue aluminum siding. An air conditioner protrudes from one window, and the white front door sports a brass knocker. This likely was some family's refuge from the outside world, where they brought home their newborns, where they knew they belonged.

A second look reveals that something is horribly wrong. The house is draped over an upside-down truck, the grill with its inverted "Ford" logo facing out. Upturned rubber tires distort the siding, bump up against the screen door. The window above has been stretched from a rectangle into a rhombus.

I don't know how anyone could look at this house and not think of The Wizard of Oz. With personal effects strewn across the landscape, it wouldn't have surprised me to see striped stockings and ruby slippers sticking out from under the house.

What happened to the people who lived there? Did they drown in the attic? Were they washed out to the Gulf of Mexico? Maybe their bodies are hidden, along with God knows how many others, under the horrendous rubble that is the Lower Ninth Ward ­ and Saint Bernard Parish and the Mississippi coast.

And is there anyone in that truck? Supposedly, authorities have sent sniffer dogs out to check for the dead, but bodies keep turning up in the rubble. Families have been finding them as they sift through the smithereens that were their homes.

It feels like some bizarro version of America. Surely this isn't the real us.

New Orleans is full of heartbroken people. When I asked them how they were doing, I discovered that most of them were about three questions away from tears. They've lost homes, friends, relatives, jobs. Suicides are way up.

These survivors told me that they want the rest of the country to know they desperately need help; they feel abandoned by us, this nation with its pathetically short attention span. The displaced are still living in tents while some 10,700 empty FEMA trailers sink into the mud in Arkansas.

If only there were someone we could turn to, a national leader, our own Wizard of Oz who could help everyone get back home safely. Alas, our man in Washington is about as capable as the Wizard turned out to be when he admitted, as the hot-air balloon escaped from its moorings, "I don't know how it works!"

And so, lacking ruby slippers or any other sort of magic, the survivors continue to drift along in grief and isolation.

They say these summer hurricanes will keep getting worse as the climate shifts. This year, it could be me. It could be you.

Your house, the one you brought your newborn home to, the place where you belong, smashed to bits, or draped across a Ford, far from home.