It was the stark and maddening images that were hardest to take, so much like September 11th, in that you wanted to help, to reach through the screen and pull people out of the water or off of roofs, or hand food and water to those trapped at the Superdome, people pleading with the cameras for some surcease from the nightmare. It broke the heart and boggled the mind, that somehow, we could not help them fast enough.
Hurricane Katrina was a wake-up call, a call we had taken before with Hurricane Hugo, but chose to ignore. We were wholly unprepared, no plan in place, and a command structure that could not seem to overcome its inertia. As the people of New Orleans pleaded for help, and as the rest of us found our generosity ramped up to new levels, the people who were supposed to be helping them were noticeable by their absence. In the days following landfall, it was the heroics of individuals, the Coast Guard, and some major corporations, that began the flow of aid to a beleaguered people.
Many throughout government, throughout the decades, had known that something like this was possible, but at no point did anyone step up and make a move to plan for, prepare for, or try to prevent it. As with many things, government simply crossed its fingers, in hopes that it would never happen. Far more important things were occupying their time.
So the wind and rain came, the levees broke, and New Orleans paid, paid for American hubris and governmental nonintervention and lack of forethought. A major American city was reduced to ruins, live on TV, and when it was over, it still wasn't over, because though the tropical storm had abated, the storm surge of human misery had just begun. People were displaced, their homes submerged, families ripped apart and scattered, lives decimated amidst damp, dismal, moldy wreckage. We were left to ask: how could this happen?
It is now five years later and though New Orleans is once again a vibrant city, still flush with the victory of its beloved Saints in the Super Bowl, the home of Mardi Gras and jazz, and as pleasant a tourist destination as you will find, the echoes of Katrina still rebound from quiet side streets. A trolley ride takes you past the hundreds of homes, still abandoned, whole neighborhoods now vacant and silent still. Hundreds of thousands of people have not returned, unwilling or unable to confront the past.
So, as we watch the shows, see the footage again, and remember those horrible days, let us not assume that all is well. New Orleans lives and breaths, but her breath is short and her streets still damp, with the flood, the tears, and the blood.