Over the next two weeks, America marks the anniversaries of two of our most devastating national tragedies. Debate over the level to which either September 11 or the destruction of New Orleans could have been prevented may never be settled, but it's inarguable that in the case of the latter, Louisiana was not prepared.
I lived in New Orleans as a small child, and my first memories are there. For this Navy brat, it's one of few places I feel at home. When Katrina came, I was working in California, and it was a frustratingly distant experience watching on CNN.com and waiting for phone calls from our friends still there.
When it came time to return to Charleston, I knew I had to stop in New Orleans. I volunteered with the Common Ground Collective and was blown away by the visible, overwhelming destruction and the horror stories of death and suffering I was told. Each night I returned to my cot and wrote down everything I'd experienced that day. It wasn't until I pulled out of town that I broke down and cried.
If another Katrina (or Rita) came this week, New Orleans would again fall to shambles. As the cover of TIME stated two weeks ago (Aug. 13, 2007), "It's pathetic." The category 5 Hurricane Dean ravaged Mexico's Yucatan peninsula last week, but it could just as easily have turned north. It's a crap shoot, and all of us living here on the warm water coasts can just cross our fingers and prepare the best we can.
Hurricane Katrina, which was only a strong category 2 where it crossed New Orleans, killed 1,833 people and caused $81 billion in damage. People all over the country were ready to help, taking refugees into their homes, giving freely to the Red Cross, and organizing supply runs to Gulf Coast communities. People have souls, and a tragedy brings out the best neighborly intentions — just look at the millions raised for firefighter families here in Charleston.
Likewise, good has emerged from evil in New Orleans. The organization now called Common Ground Relief, an anarchic hodgepodge of volunteers when I was there in Dec. 2005, now operates free medical clinics, offers legal assistance, restores wetlands, and continues to help families rebuild their homes. The government failed them, so they're doing it themselves, and they're thriving. Until it happens again.
After the initial chaos subsided in Louisiana, it became abundantly clear that the pre-Katrina priorities of industry and oil companies along the Mississippi were still the priority of their lawmakers as well (some of whom have fortunately been exposed and indicted). When the bulk of federal funds should have gone towards strengthening locks and levees around neighborhoods, or rebuilding wetlands that serve as the natural buffer to storm surges, Senators David Vitter and Mary Landrieu were requesting billions to deepen ports and build new shipping canals.
Protecting the people of New Orleans who wish to return would certainly inconvenience and hurt the pocketbooks of a few profiteers. Filling in oil and gas canals that funnel storm surges or releasing desperately needed sediment upstream of the Mississippi's mouth would hurt shipping, but not doing it is shameful.
It's shameful like an open-pit "lagoon" of hog effluent at any of Smithfield's factory pig farms in eastern North Carolina, ready for a hurricane to spread feces over the rural population already gagging from the toxic fumes. It's shameful like Kinder Morgan's proposed 20-acre coal pile in between the Cooper River and Charleston's impoverished Chicora/Cherokee neighborhood, directly in the line of fire when a storm surge brings that coal inland. We are in the eye of a much bigger storm. Round one came to New Orleans, and if you've ever been in a hurricane, the second half is usually rougher. Whether it comes here, to North Carolina, or to the Gulf Coast, people will again suffer preventable harm. That's shameful.
Check out www.CommonGroundRelief.org for more on what's going down in New Orleans two years after Katrina.