Three Years Ago

Exactly three years ago, Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast, only eight months after walls of water two stories high swept entire villages to sea and killed a quarter of a million people in a dozen other countries. The Indian Ocean earthquake that raised those walls is said to have released the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs.

Katrina had nowhere near that force, yet after nearly every levee in metro New Orleans was breached, 80% of the city and many areas of neighboring parishes were flooded for weeks. Seventy-one percent of New Orleans’ occupied housing was damaged, making it the largest residential disaster in U.S. history.
The title story of my collection, Silent Girl, is bookended by these catastrophes of biblical proportions. I researched them for that story and like to check in from time to time to find out how recovery is proceeding. Whether we’re talking about New Orleans or Asia, the ones who suffered the most were the most disadvantaged to begin with.

For example, over 100,000 undocumented Burmese migrants were working in the rubber, construction, and tourism industries on Thailand’s western coast when the tsunami hit. Those who survived were deliberately excluded from all official assistance, denied shelter in camps, and left on their own to survive.

Remember the pictures of the mostly poor, mostly black people in New Orleans abandoned to primitive conditions at the Superdome?  As Ruth Gidley reports in this Reuters News article, “Katrina not only changed the way the rest of the world views one of the richest countries on the planet, it changed the way storm survivors think about their government.”

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey revealed that most New Orleans residents still feel forgotten by their government and their fellow citizens. Contributing to that feeling is the fact that less than half the federal money set aside for rebuilding has actually been spent on it. Similarly in Asia, $1.6 billion was earmarked for rebuilding after the tsunami but war and politics have slowed down the work. A UN-led effort has begun to install tsunami-warning systems in the Indian Ocean, but work on strengthening the levees in New Orleans won’t be done until 2011.

This is on my mind right now because I’ve been following coverage of the Democratic Convention in Denver and trying not to get swept away by the rhetoric on change. It’s tough, though. I shed a few tears during Ted Kennedy’s speech. Not due to affection—I haven’t forgotten Mary Jo Kopechne—but because of his call for “a better world” with “justice for the many.”  It brought me back to the days of JFK when I, like the many young Obama disciples today, were eager to stand on the edge of the “new frontier” he spoke about. I wept during Michelle Obama’s speech, too, when she recalled Barak saying we too easily accept the distance between “the world as it is” and “the world as it should be.” And I wept during his acceptance speech when he said, “Enough!” and “America, we’re better than that.”

I’d like to believe he would lead the effort to bridge the distance between what is and what should be but my hope is tempered by history. Time and again we demonstrate how little we care for the poor and the others we marginalize.  We send money when disaster first strikes but we quickly lose interest, junkies for the next sensational story, unwilling to share long-term with others. It’s difficult for us to sustain the effort required to effect lasting change. In New Orleans, that would involve dealing with the deep-seated racism and class divides that are barriers to a good education for all, decent housing for all, and livable wages for all.

In Canada and many other parts of the world, I’m guessing it would be the same.

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