Survival Skills Lost

Today’s New York Times has a story about the lack of good options for FEMA disaster housing. The tainted trailers obviously won’t work, and many other ideas are too expensive, too big or too nice, believe it or not.

Stories like this remind me how money does not always beget resilience. This country has enough talent and resources to build a house-in-a-box that keeps people safe and healthy (but is cheap to replace if a truly nightmarish storm comes in—and the people have to evacuate). But three years after Katrina, the options are slimmer than they should be.

I recently met a woman who has spent the past six years living and working in Ghana. She told me a story of watching a Hurricane Katrina documentary with some of the locals. The film detailed how diapers, strollers and bottles had to be rushed from around the country to help the babies in the storm’s path.

In Ghana, this detail seemed a little strange. There, infants don’t use diapers. Women carry babies on their backs and learn to detect the signs of an imminent excretion. Then they hold the babies over the side of the road. I am glad we don’t do that here; the downside of raw sewage on the street obviously outweighs the upside. But it was a reminder of how developed countries are sometimes more vulnerable to certain, smaller risks than underdeveloped countries.

Americans used to build their houses themselves. We knew how to do it, and we knew what kind of weather the houses would withstand. Luckily for us, we’ve forgotten. We now spend more time watching TV shows about remodeling our bathrooms than we do learning how to harden our houses against storms that happen every year.

I love diapers. I thank God for diapers. But I suspect I could learn something from the resilience of people who have never bought Pampers.

GeneralAmanda Ripley