The Ultimate Wake-Up Call

Who knew an American city could be — essentially — wiped out?

I confess I was someone who typically looked at the horror of the earthquakes and floods and wreckage from such things elsewhere, who felt compassion for the souls caught up in such devastation — but was sure the obliteration we witnessed taking place around the world, say with the tsunamis, couldn’t really happen here.

Not because I foolishly thought we had any protection from such natural disasters. But because I believed that American technology, top-notch planning, first-responders and, yes, plain old wealth, would typically protect us from the worst fallout of natural disasters _ even when a city lay below sea level.

In fact, that has often been the case _ but not this time.

And so New Orleans lies under many feet of water, and the Gulf Coast is devastated.

Forget the “blame game.” I’m left to look at my little family, my four young children, to find concrete ways my kids and I can help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and then I’m left to figure out how I can encourage my children to live in a world in which a city can be wiped out _ if only for a time _ in the United States of America in 2005. Not from a terrorist attack, but from nature itself.

Talk about a wakeup call.

I think so often we Americans believe we can protect our kids from the vagaries, the adversity of life. It may not come to our children in the form of a broken city. It may come in the form of a broken body, a broken family, or a broken spirit for any number of reasons.

And yet, we parents tend to think we can protect them from such things. Live in the “right” neighborhood, get the children off to a good pre-school, cram them with great after-school activities, get them on the road to that Ivy League college, keep the “wrong” friends and the “wrong” culture from getting in _ and we make them safe, right?

I’ve certainly been guilty of thinking along such lines.

What happened in New Orleans just makes manifest what was and is still always the case for each of us _ we can do all those “right” things, and still find our lives turned upside-down in an instant.

What has struck me most in the midst of the Katrina catastrophe is not just the question of what can I give to the victims today _ but the larger question, for me, of what can I give my own kids for a lifetime to help them weather whatever adversity might come their way?

The answer is one that has nothing to do with wealth or education or “position.”

I’m reminded of Bruce Ismay, the president of the White Star Line, who was on his ill-fated Titanic when it sank on its maiden voyage. Contrary to popular myth, he didn’t take a seat on a lifeboat from a woman or child. But by jumping into an empty seat at the last moment and after the “women and children first” order had gone out, he risked causing a break in the ranks that could swamp lifeboats. For a number of reasons related to the Titanic sinking, he got to New York alive, but spent the rest of his life in disgrace. His character, formed over a lifetime, showed its true colors on that night.

Fast forward to Sept. 11, 2001, and United Airlines Flight 93 _ Todd Beamer and his comrades on that ill-fated vessel showed how their characters had also been trained over a lifetime. They stormed the cockpit of that flight hoping to do whatever was right _ whatever the cost to themselves. They saved untold lives on the ground.

Hurricane Katrina has reminded me of what is always true _ we live in an uncertain, unstable world and what we rely on can change in an instant. I can do everything “right” and still not protect my children from that reality.

What I can do, what I must do, is seek daily to develop in my children a character that will rightly guide, instruct and ultimately strengthen them _ whatever an uncertain world brings to them.

(Betsy Hart is the author of “It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our Kids _ and What to Do About It.” She can be reached at