Sunday, August 29, 2010

Katrina, five years later

Yesterday marked the five-year anniversary of the nation's worst natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina left 1800 dead in its wake and tens of thousands of people homeless. It decimated not just New Orleans, one America's most unique and inspirational cities, but hundreds of miles of the Gulf Coast region.

But perhaps its most pervasive, enduring damage was to the nation's psyche. It gave us all the feeling that government is powerless to help citizens who need help the most -- or worse, that it willfully neglected to do what was necessary to protect its people. That feeling will linger much longer than it will take to rebuild New Orleans' residences and reconstruct its battered levees.

Many of the nation's newspapers ran front page articles yesterday recalling the catastrophe and its enduring aftermath. Few of us needed to be reminded of the terrible events of that day. We still carry vivid images of the hurricane's terrible landing: the whiplash rain pelting the streets of the city like bullets; huge oaks upended by 70 mile per hour gusts along St. Charles Avenue and downtown palm trees on Canal Street bent double; the roofs of buildings torn off; cars and boats piled up like so much flotsam.

And then, in the tortorous, apocalyptic days that followed, who could ever forget the crowds of impoverished people, with no means of escape, crammed into the windblown Superdome, clutching their worldly possessions and clinging to loved ones, begging for relief; stranded survivors standing on the rooftops of their flooded homes, waving white flags to National Guard helicopters, desperate to escape the oppressive heat and their hunger.

And finally, as the full recognition of the tragedy finally struck home, we witnessed dozens of embarrassing images of drowned bodies, floating face-down in flooded, stagnant streets, dispossessed of life but lying out of reach of anyone who could give their carcass a decent burial.
Katrina still hurts us emotionally. It it made America look like a Third World nation. Elected officials in Washington, D.C. and Baton Rouge, La. had known for decades the levee walls would be breached some day. None of them took steps to prevent it from happening. When the bill finally came due, none of them took blame either.

New Orleans is one of the most remarkable cities in the world: the birthplace of jazz, a place of rich and varied architectural styles and exquisit cuisine. It was left in harm's way.

As the Sunday front page stories attested yesterday, New Orleans is gradually recovering from the hurricane, primarily because the people who lived there before the hurricane love it so much. The place is too special to abandon.

We must never forget the lessons of Katrina. The forging of our national character demands that much.

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