By R. Neal

We're watching the reports from the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. I am unable to process, much less describe, the magnitude of what we are seeing. Not much else seems very important today.

As the personal accounts start coming in, we begin to get an idea of the terrifying ordeal those who could not or would not leave have endured.

Seeing someone with the remains of a loved one they can't even bury, wrapped in sheets, waiting by a flooded road for someone to tell them what to do with the body...

...hearing the first-hand account of a man who was stranded with his family on the roof of their home, holding on tightly to his wife's hand, watching the storm surge approach, his wife saying "You can't hold on to me, take care of the children and the grandchildren..." as she lets go and is swept away along with their home and all their belongings...

...watching entire families plucked from the rooftops of submerged houses, reeled into helicopters one by one...

...watching families and children and the elderly and infirmed being pulled into boats through holes chopped into their roofs and attics, embracing their rescuers, thanking them for saving their lives and the lives of their families...

...seeing families wading in chest deep water, what few belongings they could save floating alongside in plastic trash bags... and rescue teams marking homes and structures where bodies are found with a red 'X', leaving them and moving on to the next structure, hoping to find survivors...

It's almost more than one can bear to watch, and impossible to comprehend. Being there and living through it, or dying in it, is unimaginable.

No food. No water. No power. No medical supplies or assistance. No sanitary facilities. No communications. No roads in or out. No infrastructure. No shelter. And seemingly no hope. This is the situation this morning for New Orleans and most of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. This is human tragedy on a Biblical scale.

One feels helpless. And frustrated. And angry. There are many questions. Where is the National Guard? Where is FEMA? Where are the provisions? Where are the shelters? Why can't the Corps of Engineers repair the levees and stop the flooding? Why were the poor not evacuated? What happened to the plans and preparations? Is it even possible to prepare for a catastrophe of this magnitude?

The answers will have to come later. Right now there's no time to even count the dead. There is only time to save as many lives as possible. And as frustrated and helpless those of us watching safely from afar might feel, imagine the frustration of first responders and relief workers dealing with logistical nightmares just getting to the scene. Imagine how overwhelmed those who have made it to the scene must feel.

Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana seems overwhelmed. She is reduced to asking for prayers and divine intervention. Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi, overcome with grief and emotion, tries to project strength. They will rebuild. But the work will not be completed on his watch. Nobody knows how long it will take, except that it will be years.

This morning, New Orleans appears to be facing a worst-case scenario. The Superdome has upwards of 12,000 people barely surviving in unbelievable squalor. These people will have to be evacuated to shelters. Except the streets are flooded, the water is rising, and transportation in or out will be difficult.

Countless others are in the streets without shelter or transportation or provisions. These people will have to be evacuated to shelters. Except there's no way to communicate with them, there do not appear to be adequate shelters, and transportation in and out of the area is hampered by washed out roads and bridges and flooding. And the water is still rising.

Hospitals are running out of backup power and supplies. Most have been evacuated or are in the process of evacuating. The Navy is deploying hospital ships, and there is talk of commandeering cruise ships to use as shelters.

Nearly half a million people in New Orleans alone may be homeless and will have to be sheltered somewhere. Those who made it out before the storm will not be able to come back for weeks or possibly months. Tens or hundreds of thousands will not be able to work. Their place of employment may no longer exist. They won't have homes or transportation. The levees will have to be repaired and the water will have to be pumped out before any recovery and rebuilding can begin.

The situation in Mississippi is not much better, and maybe worse. The Mississippi Gulf Coast was obliterated. It's just not there any more. The Governor estimates that 90% of the homes and structures along the coast were destroyed. At one point 80% of the state was without power. Major highways and bridges in and out of the coastal areas are gone.

Nobody knows how many people got out or how many stayed behind. Depending on how many stayed, the death toll could be in the hundreds. The situation there is a little better in one respect. The storm surge flood waters have receded, so relief and rescue workers are able to start working their way into the hardest hit areas. Power is slowly being restored, but efforts are hampered by the loss of two Mississippi Power generating stations.

What can those of us who feel helpless and frustrated do to help? The first thing you should not do is go to the scene unless you've been asked. It will only further stress the already overburdened infrastructure and relief effort. The best way to help is to donate to relief agencies, such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Second Harvest Food Bank, the Catholic Charities Disaster Response, the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, or others involved in the effort.

OK, then.