The phone rang Saturday morning with an urgent call for help. Several palettes of food and water sat on the tarmac at Roanoke, Virginia’s municipal airport and they needed able bodies to help load three old Fairchild F-27s that local groups had mobilized for an airlift to New Orleans.

At 57, with bad knees, a bum hip and a questionable ankle, the term “able body” seldom comes to mind but I made the 50-mile trip in a little under 40 minutes to spend the next three hours helping fill the three planes. We watched them disappear into the southern sky and headed for coffee in Roanoke’s Market Square where I could also use the city’s free Wi-Fi to check on progress on our fundraising efforts for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Later, driving home at a more legal pace, I thought about the past week and the monumental outpouring of support by ordinary Americans to help people they don’t know or will most likely never meet in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. I’ve watched contributions ranging from $5 to $500 come in from readers of this web site. Nationwide, Americans have coughed up well over $100 million.

Yet all the support is marred by the foul stench of the dead and dying on the streets of New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi and other cities, towns and hamlets along the Gulf Coast. Too many unanswered questions remain as to why it took so long for government agencies – local, state and federal – to respond to this crisis, why the Federal Emergency Management Agency wasn’t prepared and why the largest, more expensive federal agency in history – The Department of Homeland Security – dropped the ball.

Hopefully, the anger over images of death and despair that dominated the television screens this past week will force answers to these questions and result in changes to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Natural disasters will happen again. But we must make sure that people never again wait hungry and dying for five days while the government tries to get its act together.

Partisan political finger pointing, however, will not bring those answers or help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Conservative blowhard Rush Limbaugh sitting in the comfort of his air-conditioned studio and screaming that the refugees in the New Orleans Superdome don’t matter because they are “mostly prostitutes an drug addicts” does nothing but deepen the partisan divide that is ripping this country apart. Conversely, those who blame everything that happened on the Bush administration only add to the deep divisions that mire this country in a political muck even deeper than the mud and mire of New Orleans.

The blame, indecisiveness and screw ups that kept hundreds of thousands of hurricane victims from getting needed help crosses party and philosophical lines. Few, if any, can claim the high ground here because too many had a hand in ignoring warnings or misplacing priorities.

Later, when the bodies are found, identified and buried, when the water is pumped out of the deadly bowl that is New Orleans and when the rebuilding begins up and down the Gulf Coast, we can assess blame and fix the problem.

But let’s hope we can do so without the usual partisan preaching, without the “party first, America second” mentality and without the shrill hyperbole that replaces logical, reasoned debate in today’s society.

Katrina didn’t care if she killed Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, right or left, rich or poor, when she came ashore a week ago.

Death is non-partisan. And those of us who learn from the tragic – and in too many cases needless – deaths of the past week should be as well.