Where were you when Katrina stormed the Southern Gulf? I had the surreal experience of being on a family vacation when the storms blew in; I had asked my now-regular blogging compatriot R. Neal - then "South Knox Bubba" - to stand in (talk about a tough first assignment!). Like countless others, we spent the next few days glued to the television, trying to make sense of the horror unfolding before our eyes - and knowing there was much more to the story.
Hurricane Katrina was - actually is, because the tragedy is still happening - the most important event to unfold in the South in over a generation. It forever altered the course of a region, blowing hundreds of thousands of people across the country; some 200,000 are still in exile from New Orleans alone. And those still in the Gulf are struggling mightily to keep their lives together. Few isolated events in this country have changed so many lives, an entire social landscape, so quickly and permanently.
Whether or not the 12-month disaster of Katrina -- and the insulting spin of our political leadership -- will come to an end is up to us.
For all the talk about how Katrina brought issues of "race and class" to the fore, the sad reality is that America did little with these "new" insights. But the damage is still there: Lance Hill, a scholar of race issues at the Southern Institute at Tulane, speculates many African-Americans will suffer from "ethnic trauma" - the psychological damage that comes from knowing that you and your people were brutally and collectively mistreated merely because of the color of your skin. For the fleeing African-American families turned away at the Gretna bridge by white cops, or being sent Blackwater International security personnel with rifles instead of evacuation buses, it's post-traumatic stress disorder squared - or more.
The second tragedy of Katrina is that fact that - as we conclusively show in our report, "One Year after Katrina" (pdf) - on issue after issue, Washington has left the Gulf Coast behind for 12 long, hard months. Housing, schools, hospitals, toxic threats, oversight of rebuilding contracts, hurricane readiness - it's hard to find a single area where Congress and the White House have done what they could or should have to stop the suffering of thousands of people and bring the Gulf Coast back.
In some cases it was lack of federal leadership -- failing to approve money for levee repair and housing assistance until months after the storm, or nonsensically calling the staggering levels of arsenic and lead in New Orleans neighborhoods "not unacceptable."
In other cases there was leadership, just in the wrong direction. Washington was aggressive about the issues it cared about, like shoveling $9 billion to politically-connected contractors, resulting in fraud and waste that cost taxpayers 50 times as much the small-time scam artists who allegedly misspent their $2,000 post-storm allowances. Or jumping to provide massive outlays for detaining people who needed butter more than guns: one food distribution center we visited outside New Orleans had four levels of armed personnel - local cops, the coast guard, state police, and of course the ever-present Blackwater - all to protect the supplies from ... well, it's not exactly clear who, or what.
On my first visit to New Orleans after the storms, my local guide Darryl Malek-Wiley took me out to the shabby levees that had tipped over from the storm surge. These monuments to cost-cutting and incompetence told a story, as Darryl put it: "The way we look at it, it was federal levees that failed and caused most of the death and destruction. So the federal government owes us something. Call it reparations."
Darryl could have pointed to many more cases of federal neglect, misplaced priorities, and incompetence, which put together show that Katrina was, and is, a national problem, requiring national solutions.
But as of today, August 29, 2006 - the one-year anniversary of a still-unfolding tragedy - all the White House can muster is references to the billions in mis-spent money and carefully-engineered photo ops that sanitize suffering.
National leadership has been lacking everywhere. After throwing a few political hand grenades after the storms, Democrats largely dropped Katrina as an issue. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats' leader in the House, didn't even venture to the site of the worst "natural" disaster in U.S. history until March 15, 2006 - and did herself and the party no favors by expressing "surprise" at what she saw.
Progressives nationally - aside from a few stalwarts, like the NAACP, Sierra Club, Jesse Jackson, John Edwards - largely dropped Katrina, too. This was not only morally bankrupt, but politically absurd: a Marist poll in February found that 66% of voters nationally were bothered "a great deal or good amount" by Bush's handling of Katrina--far outpacing concern for the Valerie Plame and Jack Abramoff scandals that were objects of progressive pundit obsession. The disillusionment continues.
Over the last 12 months, the Gulf and its people have needed bold, national action - and when that wasn't forthcoming from Washington, they needed a bold, national movement to demand accountability and change.
They got neither, which is why 60% of establishments in New Orleans still aren't drawing electricity, 200,000 people are still displaced, only 57 of 117 public schools will open in New Orleans this school year, and all the other signs that the Katrina tragedy is still with us, every day.
The one-year anniversary may be the last chance we have to put Katrina and the chain of destructive events it unleashed back on the national radar. And this time, we have a special obligation: to make sure the attention shining on the Gulf isn't used to tell lurid tales of "despair" or offer simplistic homilies of "hope," but to dig into the real, hard political realities: Who is being left behind and why? Who needs to be held accountable? What needs to be done, now, to change course?
Because, let's be absolutely clear: the current course is failing and unacceptable, and the consequences too tragic. And no one should be sitting idly by while it continues.
Those of us who care about the Gulf and its people must - for at least a day, but hopefully much longer - put Katrina at the top of our agenda. On the one-year anniversary, we have another chance, another "Katrina moment" -- and this time, we can't blow it.
We must demand that the Gulf get more money, not less. And not cash for crony contractors, rescuing Army bases, or tax-break "GO Zones," money for housing, schools, health clinics, cleaning up toxic waste, and other basics needed if the region is to come back.
We need a broad, national movement that's willing to challenge the gathering storm of privateers and power-brokers in the Gulf that seeks to disenfranchise, detain, and gentrify thousands of people, locking them out of the place they call home.
We need to show how Katrina revealed the need for a a change of political philosophy, a revolution of values that states clearly and forcefully that the public good is more important than private greed.
The people of the Gulf Coast - those at home and those in exile - don't need Lifetime dramas or political boosterism.
They need good allies - you and me - to pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.
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