The geyser of oil resulting from the Deepwater Horizon offshore platform explosion continues to dump hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico each day. Oil giant BP, which leased the platform and is responsible for stopping the leak and cleaning up the spill, has been unable to activate the blowout preventer to halt the continuous flow of oil. If that device cannot be fixed, alternative measures are taking shape. BP has started to drill a relief well, but it won’t be complete for at least a month and a half. Next week, they say they’ll be ready to try dropping an enormous dome and collecting the oil as though it were a giant funnel, but such an effort has never been tested at 5,000-foot depths.

That’s what is making this tragedy so difficult to process. In some respects, New Orleanians are all too experienced when it comes to dealing with foreseeable tragedies. However, because nobody truly knows the scope and scale of this disaster or precisely what it could mean, New Orleans functions with an eerie normalcy. JazzFest went on all weekend as scheduled. Festivities celebrating Mitch Landrieu’s inauguration as mayor will go on today as planned. People are going to work and school just like any other day. That obviously excludes fishers who cannot fish, but since they are mobilizing as part of the containment efforts, those communities have not yet faced permanent displacement, health problems, and all the other consequences that may be on their way but which have not yet arrived.

How is one supposed to behave in a situation like this?

When a hurricane threatens the Gulf, people stockpile water, gas, and batteries. People, however sloppily, prepare.

But how do you get prepared for an environmental disaster of unknown yet clearly catastrophic proportions? There was a run on restaurants to consume what could be the last local shrimp and oysters for awhile, but it’s not like people can go out and buy bags of chemical dispersants to sprinkle on the lawn. The oil has reached our figurative backyard, the wetlands, but it’s not literally at our feet.

For now, it’s about waiting for the crisis to pass and waiting for the chance to survey the scale of the devastation.

Even if BP were to figure out a way to activate the blowout preventer today, to cut off the flow of oil with the snap of a finger, the amount of crude that has already exploded into the Gulf of Mexico would constitute an environmental, economic, social, and national security catastrophe of the highest order. Should the alternative fixes fail, well, those scenarios haven’t really been seriously communicated to the public.

So we wait.

The immediate crisis is one that challenges our government and BP. Halting the continuous explosion of oil coming out of the bottom of the sea is their shared responsibility and No. 1 priority. If and when that problem is solved, authorities will measure the scale of the disaster and begin to anticipate its long-term environmental, economic, and social consequences.

It is only then that, even in a best-case scenario, the disaster will actually begin to strike. Because it is only after the immediate emergency has passed that the people of this region will have live with the results. You can’t start to rebuild until you know all that’s been broken.

We know that this oil inundation already represents a breathtaking tragedy for the already fragile wetlands and barriers islands protecting Southeast Louisiana, New Orleans, and coastal communities from here to Pensacola. It is a tragedy that will change this region for more than a generation.

But we can’t really comprehend the degree – and won’t –  until after the minute-to-minute crisis of how to staunch the continuous flow of oil subsides and after the immediate clean up.

The real challenges faced by residents –  rebuilding economies and communities, mitigating long term health risks – will reveal themselves over the course of months and years after the immediacy of the crisis subsides.