By Terri Lee Freeman
Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. It’s considered one of the deadliest hurricanes and most destructive natural disasters in U.S. history. Hundreds of thousands of people along the Gulf Coast, especially in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, were displaced from their homes, and damage is estimated at more than $100 billion. A million people were affected. Close to 2,000 people were reported killed.
It was August 29, 2005 -- the day the levees broke. And it was the beginning of an extended period of Hell on earth in New Orleans, Louisiana televised for the world to see. It was the beginning of an extended period in our current history where citizens of the world watched in horror as U.S. citizens were forced to survive in the elements with little food or water. We watched people, in this country die before our very eyes. We watched human desperation from our living rooms, while eating dinner, and feeling helpless in our inability to do anything. And we wondered how something so tragic could happen in these United States in 2005. We wondered why our government was unable to provide relief to its citizens. We wondered why citizens were called refugees. We wondered why it was necessary for parents and children to be separated to be saved. It seemed like a bad dream to those of us unaffected. And it was in fact, a horrible nightmare for those who called New Orleans home.
What played out in New Orleans in 2005 was what troubled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 as he made his way to Memphis, Tennessee -- the economic inequities that impacted the lives of too many people. To paraphrase Dr. King, "what good does it do if you can sit at the lunch counter but still can't afford to order a hamburger?" In 2005 those who had the means to leave New Orleans for higher ground did so. Those who could not made the decision to wait it out in their homes, or go to the convention center. Ten years later, we know it wasn't the natural disaster that was to blame for the tragedy in New Orleans but the man-made disaster that began with poorly constructed levees and ended with politicians pointing their fingers out the window instead of in the mirror.
In order to prevent a similar situation from occurring again we must remember this history. There will be many natural disasters to come, but can we learn the necessary lessons from Katrina that allow us to respond in a more effective manner in the future? Have we elected public officials that have all of our best interests at heart? Have our cities put in place emergency preparedness plans and practices to protect, as much as possible, it's residents? Are we, as citizens, prepared to provide for ourselves for at least 72-hours in case of emergency? Are our citizens in a better position, economically, than they were 10 years ago?
I'll let you ponder the answers to these questions. Here's what we know. For the most part, the city of New Orleans has been rebuilt, but if you look closely, the tell-tale signs of the human suffering that occurred can still be seen. There remain homes in the lower ninth ward with the eerily familiar markings of the "X" which signified that the house had been checked and identified any deaths found in the residence. The tent city that sprung up under the Pontchartrain Freeway has disappeared, but the homeless still exist. And many people who suffered through those long days and nights relive the horror in their minds, too frequently.
While we will never prevent natural disasters, I believe, as did Dr. King, that we can help people share in the prosperity that is this great country through public investment in education and quality municipal services, private investment in job creation and personal investment in being actively engaged citizens. The definition of insanity is doing the exact same thing expecting a different result. Let us never forget New Orleans.