Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Remembering Hurricane Katrina: 5 Years Later

Five years and two days ago, Hurricane Katrina swept ashore near Bay St. Louis, Louisiana. It gave New Orleans a glancing blow from its full effects. That's what most of us were told on August 29. The focus early was on the Gulf Coast between eastern Louisiana and Alabama. The devastation there was unimaginable.

On the morning of August 30, 2005, it became clear that the early reports of New Orleans being spared major damage were incorrect. The levees were breaching and water was pouring into the city. By today, five years ago, 85 percent of New Orleans, Louisiana was under water. A major U.S. city had been brought to its knees by a hurricane and shoddy construction of its levee and pump defense system.

Americans were just now coming to grips with the video of people on the roofs of their homes or their apartment balconies or in the hallways and common areas near the Convention Center fighting for life. The story of what happened and what was happening inside the Superdome was coming to light. As hundreds of thousands of people unable to evacuate baked in the sunshine and humidity with death and destruction all around, we were wondering how this could happen in our own country. Certainly, this could not have been America.

It was today, five years ago, that President Bush decided to cut his vacation in Crawford short and return to Washington. It would still be a few days before he would be on the ground in New Orleans. Perhaps in a failed effort to reassure Americans that he felt their pain, the Bush Administration released this photo of President Bush safe and dry in Air Force One looking out over the devastation in New Orleans.

Little did we know at the time that the man chosen by Bush and Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff to lead the relief effort was FEMA Chief Michael Brown. To say he was in over his head would be an understatement. On September 2, 2005, President Bush would tell him that he was doing a "Heck of a job." Of course, he would be removed as the head of the relief effort by September 12.

Since the time, New Orleans, leaner (by about 100,000 people) and perhaps meaner than it was before, has dusted itself off and has moved forward. The wounds on the Gulf Coast from Alabama to New Orleans are still there. Insurance companies, the federal government, and other agencies have dropped the ball on the rebuilding and recovery effort.

This spring, the area took another shot when the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded and sunk killing 11 and spilling millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. That oil devastated the sensitive wetlands of the Louisiana coast, killed animals and sea life, scared people away from the beaches, and eviscerated much of the Gulf fishing industry.

Again, I think the region will get up and dust itself off. We have seen the resilience of the Gulf Coast region.

That may be true, but you wonder, if another Katrina happened, if our government is any more ready to deal with it today than we were on August 29, 2005. You just wonder.

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