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  Our Finest Hour

By Cliff Kurtzman
Chief Executive Officer, ADASTRO Incorporated.

 
 

September 6, 2005

Chris Kraft: "This could be the worst disaster NASA's ever faced."
Gene Kranz: "With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour."
--from the movie Apollo 13.

Clifford R. Kurtzman, Ph.D.
Cliff Kurtzman
Photo Courtesy EPIZENTRUM

For years, studies had noted the likely result of a category four or five hurricane hitting New Orleans, not just in terms of the immediate physical devastation but also in terms of the tragedies that would likely befall those that had failed to evacuate. (See, for example, Drowning New Orleans by Mark Fischetti, Scientific American, October 2001.) There was no other American metropolis with a greater certainty of an eventual catastrophe that would totally destroy the city. As Katrina neared New Orleans last weekend, one didn't have to be a rocket scientist to know what was likely going to happen. As people walked into the Superdome to take shelter, I wondered and worried how many of them would find it to be their tomb.

But it is also easy to understand how so many could have failed to understand the way in which their world was about to quickly and completely change. Many of those trapped in New Orleans had limited educational backgrounds and had never been far from their city during their entire lifetimes. And most of us that have grown up in the stability of post-World War 2 America, even those of us with strong educational backgrounds, frequently make the mistake of hiding our head in the sand and failing to grasp how dramatically and unexpectedly events can compel our lives to completely and radically change.

Modern America got a dose of what could happen four years ago this week, when airplanes hijacked by terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center, destroying thousands of lives and wiping out entire businesses in nearly the blink of an eye. Yet the recent events from Hurricane Katrina found authorities scrambling to cope with a disaster on a much greater scale.

News reports have looked to point the finger at those in authority who have failed to step up to a leadership role similar to that which Rudy Giuliani assumed in dealing with the New York tragedy. While there are undoubtedly areas where there appear to have been true failings that have cost many lives (one can particularly note how much better prepared the major news networks seemed to be to deal with the situation than was the Federal government), I think that the failure to quickly come to terms with the situation in New Orleans and elsewhere in the affected areas had a more fundamental cause than an absence of leadership skills. The big difference between 9/11 and New Orleans was that in the latter case, the disaster-caused flooding and power outages completely destroyed communications and informational resources across a huge geographic region. And without communications and information, even the greatest leader amongst us can find themselves powerless to lead.

As a fan of the sport of tennis, and a publisher of an online tennis publication, I could not have possibly been more embarrassed than I was by the actions of tennis players Venus and Serena Williams. Playing at the U.S. Open, these girls (and I use the word girls intentionally), each easily having a net worth of tens of millions of dollars, had the opportunity to use the international news media as a platform for seriously engaging the public in disaster relief efforts. They grew up in Compton, California, right in the midst of social and economic poverty not dissimilar to that of so many that were stranded in New Orleans. Yet they have lost touch with their roots, and they have lost touch with America. As Johnette Howard noted, writing for Newsday, and as quoted in Tennis-X: "If we hadn't already seen Serena Williams shrug off the sight of one of her $40,000 diamond earrings clattering to the court during her first-round US Open match on Monday with the same nonchalance she once reserved for the loss of those 10-cent beads that used to fall out of her or her sister's hair, perhaps her announcement by Wednesday that she was donating $100 for every ace she hits the rest of the year to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort wouldn't have seemed so galling. Serena had just played her second straight match dripping in diamond earrings and, as an added touch, a necklace of all diamonds. That extravagance -- and the knowledge that the two aces she had Wednesday put her out all of $200 for the relief effort -- made the self-congratulatory statement that 'I've always considered myself a bit of philanthropist' seem even worse. Far worse than her sister Venus' trance-like admission earlier in the day that she hadn't heard about Hurricane Katrina at all."

Once it became clear what the consequences of Katrina would be in terms of displaced lives, I, as did so many other business leaders in Houston, began devoting my full efforts to seeing how the resources at my disposal could best be used to make a difference in the lives of those whom had been adversely affected. One of the other companies that I have founded has built a network of nearly 14,000 people in the Houston area, and we quickly began mobilizing to get information out about Katrina relief efforts. I wrote to my network last Wednesday, telling them that "The full magnitude of the tragedy is surely not yet apparent. Over the coming days and weeks we will see drinking water in the affected region become exhausted, disease start spreading, and circumstances bring out the very worst of the human condition. It is going to get a lot worse before it gets better... Now is the time for us in Houston to show the very best of the human condition... Let's make this Houston's finest hour."

This Day We Fight!

"A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of woes and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down, but it is not this day. This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!"
--Aragorn, from the movie The Return of the King.

And indeed, as tens of thousands of displaced individuals from New Orleans have streamed into Houston, I think that on the whole this has been Houston's finest hour. People everywhere have opened up their hearts, their homes, and their wallets to help those affected by this tragedy. The team of people I've been working with have toiled around-the-clock to put together a massive benefit event next weekend (Saturday, September 10 and Sunday, September 11) that will serve as a focal point for providing continued relief. The event is called Houston ROCKS for Hurricane Katrina Relief 1 and more information on it, along with other ways to contribute to disaster relief, is available at http://www.adastro.com/apogee/katrina.html. This two-day event will also serve as a venue that will enable us to tell the stories of many of the heros in our community, and to let people know how they can continue to make a difference in the lives of others. If you are in the Houston area, I encourage you to come on out and show your support, and ask your friends to do so as well. And whether or not you are in Houston, I also encourage you to ask the senior management of your company to contact us so that your business can help us make a difference. We are making real progress, but getting millions of lives back on track is a monumental undertaking that won't be solved overnight. We need your help too!

We have also asked folks attending this benefit to consider bringing at least one toy to donate if possible... even a coloring book or a doll or a baby rattle from the dollar store is welcome. There are so many small children that have lost everything that was dear to them, and they just don't understand... they are scared and frightened, and have nothing to do or keep their attention. Many folks are working to provide food and clothing and hygiene products, but we can't forget the kids too. I was just astounded yesterday when I got an email from a woman telling me that in response to my appeal she had an entire truckload of toys together that she wanted to contribute!

Here are a couple of other notes I've received over the past few days... the passion of those involved is truly astounding.

Chris writes, (edited for spelling):

Hey, my name is Chris and I work at Reliant Stadium. My coworkers and myself are currently working 10, 12, 18, hour shifts to help take care of the people we are currently helping in the Astrodome. Supplies are being dropped off by people and companies everyday and all day. The people in that building are so grateful for all the help we are providing. But we need more help. People are volunteering but we need more. If you have anything that can be spared to help these people, please find a way to get it to us. Once again, your help is very much appreciated. We can't do enough to help them. Please remember, what would you want to be done if it was you in there. Thank you all and god bless.

Jena writes (edited for spelling and to revise words that won't make it past a language filter):

PLEASE HELP US!

I'm a surgical nurse working in the Houston Med Center.

Right now, the Astrodome, Reliant Arena, GR Brown Convention Center (all located within two miles of the Houston Medical Center) is FULL of people. Our mayor has overridden the Fire Marshall's order to halt any more residents in our public arenas. This means that any and all people coming here are not turned down. A lot of these people are sick, a lot of these people have VERY CONTAGIOUS diseases (tuberculosis, strep conditions). A lot of these people are drug addicts beginning to have very serious withdrawal symptoms, and a lot of these people are without their life-saving meds. Did you hear that? WITHOUT THEIR LIFE-SAVING MEDS.

Shelters in smaller towns are at capacity.

WE ARE OVERWHELMED!

ANYTHING at all that you can do to help this situation... and I DO mean ANYTHING.... Please! IT WILL HELP!

Right now, there is looming knowledge that many people have contracted contagious diseases that have yet to present symptoms. What this means is -- in the coming FEW DAYS, thousands will begin to get symptoms of horrible disease they've inadvertently contracted by being exposed to the elements of their situations.

To put it simply: This stuff is FESTERING, and about to burst wide OPEN. No one is immune, and YES, you should be afraid.

As a health-care professional, I've committed 24 ongoing hours to help starting on Sunday. We're not even sure that the extra staff will be much in the way of assistance because our hospital was at capacity even BEFORE this disaster.

THIS DISASTER WILL AFFECT EVERY AMERICAN CITIZEN IN SOME WAY OR ANOTHER.

Thanks for your attention, and like I said earlier, anything at all that you can do to help can and will make a difference somewhere, and somehow.

Paul writes:

Good to hear from you. I am glad you added the gift cards from KSBJ/YMCA to your list.

I spent the weekend with Somebody Cares Houston passing out those cards. We gave away over $21,000 in $25 increments before we ran out. Unfortunately, the line for the cards did not run out, so please encourage people to buy them. If they want the tax deduction, donate to a church that will buy the cards. As an individual I think the cards are one of the best and quickest ways to distribute money. There is no "pass through" or red tape - they are placed directly into the hands that need them. 95% of the people that came in for cards needed them for fuel for their cars or sundries and diapers.

In our last Apogee article, The Acquisition of MySpace, I opened the essay with a quote, "We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams" from Gene Wilder's Willie Wonka character in the movie Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Astute reader Meredith Hamilton of Clearwater, Florida wrote in to note that the movie's screenwriters had taken this quote from a poem called Ode by Arthur O'Shaughnessy (1844-1881). It seems particularly fitting indeed to end this issue of the Apogee with the full text of that poem:

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.
World-losers and world-forsakers,
Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers,
Of the world forever, it seems.

With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world's great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire's glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song's measure
Can trample an empire down.

We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o'erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world's worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.

-- Arthur O'Shaughnessy

 
 
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