August 29, 2006

Katrina: One Year Later

Today marks the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. To those of us in Mississippi who experienced the storm first-hand, its impact continues to be felt. Thousands of people remain without permanent housing one year later. Many are still residing in FEMA trailers, waiting on government and insurance assistance to rebuild. Entire coastal communities were destroyed, and countless people lost everything they owned. Despite the promise of billions of dollars in aid by the Bush administration, this money has been slow to reach the areas where it is desperately needed. One year after Katrina less than half of the money allocated has been distributed.

The psychological impact of Hurricane Katrina will take years to gauge. Increased cases of post-traumatic stress disorder are expected but take time to fully develop. Distrust of the federal and state governments is widespread. The decision of the national media to focus on New Orleans despite much more severe devastation in Mississippi continues to foster resentment among Mississippi residents.

Personally, I'd have to say that I've experienced two important lasting effects from the experience of Katrina and its aftermath. First, I've lost a great deal of confidence in the willingness of the federal and state government to care for American citizens. I do not believe that the governmental failures we observed reflect poor preparedness or lack of ability to help nearly as much as they reflect lack of desire to help. Thus, I see this as an issue of willingness to help rather than ability to help. We can invade and occupy foreign countries to protect corporate interests, but we simply aren't interested in protecting our own citizens at home.

Second, the Katrina experience forced me to take a hard look at poverty. All our talk of "culture wars" pales in comparison to the class war that was exposed following Katrina. This is nothing new, and this was nothing caused by the hurricane. Katrina required us to acknowledge that is has been there all along, and we have decided that it was not a priority. The problem of poverty does not have simple solutions, and it is easy to feel powerless when confronted with it. However, this experience convinced me that I have a responsibility to do what I can to help.
"I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren't just abandoned during the hurricane. They were abandoned long ago to murder and mayhem in the streets, to substandard schools, to dilapidated housing, to inadequate health care, to a pervasive sense of hopelessness." -- Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
It is time to end our abandonment of the poor in our own communities. This isn't about heaven or trying to please imaginary beings. This is about social justice and doing what we know is right. As an atheist living in America, I know something about facing overwhelming odds. I don't end poverty by myself just as I won't end religious delusion by myself. But since when did that mean I shouldn't try to do what I know is right?

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