March 4, 2007

Opening Old Wounds: 18 Months After Hurricane Katrina

I just watched Spike Lee's outstanding documentary on Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke. I thought I could handle it. After all, it has been 18 months since the hell that was Katrina, and I was spared most the agony many others experienced. It turned out to be an intense emotional blow, making me feel like it was happening all over again. I woke up this morning in the midst of a nightmare and ran to the window to make sure my property had survived. Now I just feel numb again, except for the flashes of rage directed toward the government who allowed the horrific aftermath to happen and who has yet to resolve the situation in Mississippi and Louisiana. This is a film every American needs to view, chronicling a disaster no American should be allowed to forget.

Watching the images of Katrina was much harder than I expected. It brought back the vivid memories of seeing the devastation outside my window. I'll never forget the roar of that wind or the cracking of trees snapping in half. Still, the storm itself paled it comparison to the aftermath, an aftermath which continues to this day for many.

Without electricity or running water, those days in the Mississippi heat were agonizing. My friends and neighbors struggled to find even basic shelter, food, and water. Nobody took charge, and FEMA was nowhere to be found. Roughly 60 miles to the south, entire communities had been obliterated. Government officials were absent. Television, radio, phones were down, making any kind of coordinated communication impossible. One could catch the tail end of a rumor, but nobody seemed to know what was going on with any certainty.

As power and water were gradually restored, I first learned what had happened in New Orleans. Like viewers around the country, I would see desperate people crying out for help from a government who was not listening. I wanted so badly to help but felt powerless to do anything. Most gas stations were down, and the few that were open were rationing gas in small quantities. The roads were filled with debris more than a week after the storm hit. I felt guilty that I had survived what many of of them had not.

I was convinced that the local, state, and federal governments would spring into action. After all, New Orleans was an American city. We take care of our own. It was inconceivable that our government would prefer to occupy and rebuild Iraq than assist our own citizens at home. Aid did eventually arrive, but it was too late for those who were already dead. The question of why it did not come faster remains unanswered.

I thought this would be a watershed moment in American history - surely Americans would rise up and demand accountability. The American government stood by and did nothing while people were pleading for help on national TV. I also hoped that Katrina would serve to highlight the third-world conditions in which many poor residents of New Orleans found themselves long before the storm.

Here we are 18 months later, and Bush is in New Orleans again making more empty promises. Evidently, he believes that the Saints' wining season is evidence of the progress in New Orleans. Progress in Louisiana and Mississippi has been undeniably slow, and many people are still living in FEMA trailers. I am not convinced that any lessons have been learned. I'm incredibly sad for America today.

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