I have no particular fondness for the American South — not for its history, nor its politics, nor its religious leanings. But, when the President asked me to report on the situation in Texas in the midst of Hurricane Harvey, then in Florida during Hurricane Irma, I could not say no.
In and around Houston and the Gulf Coast, the suffering of so many — the loss of lives, the destruction of homes and livelihoods — diverted me from my fury at the stupidity of environmentally destructive zoning and construction policies.
In Florida, the situation was similar. In the Keys, houses utterly demolished; in Jacksonville, widespread flooding; throughout the entire state, millions of people without power or communications.
But not everything suffered loss. Reports from the Everglades noted that the python population was flourishing, what with all the abandoned dogs and cats on the loose.
And, as I discovered, Mar a Lago had been completely spared while everything around it had been utterly destroyed. (The parallel with the pythons and the pets struck me forcefully, but I kept my mouth shut.)
The immediate experience of the devastation and suffering was so overwhelming that, initially at least, I could not process the riot of images with sufficient clarity to give the President a coherent sense of the situation.
As, finally, I was able to organize my mental images of houses and buildings collapsing, baby carriages floating out to sea, trees keeling over, but also to focus on what was not damaged or swept away, I realized that the only things left absolutely untouched (besides Mar a Lago, of course) were Civil War monuments — plaques, obelisks, statues — most of them dedicated to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
I was stunned. Could this be more than pure chance? I asked myself. Perhaps it was simply that these things were solid and heavy — stone and bronze, not glass and aluminum. But other things that seemed equally grounded — fire hydrants and public toilets — had suffered far more. And I knew that, in the chaos, no special efforts had been made to protect these monuments.
I could scarcely bring myself to ask the question: Did some power intervene to protect them and yet allow innocent people to lose their homes, their possessions, their lives?
Or, more to the point, Will the people who regard these monuments as virtual religious shrines conclude that Their God had intervened to protect and console Them, just as he abandoned and punished the rest?
I debated whether to include this statistical aberration in my report, but finally decided that, since it was bound to come to light, with all its explosive potential, it was best to prepare the President.
I needn’t have fretted. When I told him of all the dogs and cats that had perished in the coils of Everglades pythons, he got misty-eyed. When I confirmed that Mar a Lago had been spared, he wept.
By the end of my report, he was in such emotional turmoil and confusion that he seemed to think Lee and Jackson were among the first responders, and had ridden their horses into the maelstrom to rescue victims. He instructed his staff to contact them and arrange a photo op when he visited. I kept my mouth shut.