Katrina: Why it was (and still is) different

This week is the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. I have just finished watching Spike Lee’s HBO documentary on the subject: “When the Levees Broke.”

If I were a movie reviewer, I would have to say that the film is at times repetitive and too drawn out. It could have benefited from tighter editing. I am certain that at least an hour could have been removed from the film without reducing its effectiveness.

On the other hand, the film does a superb job of hammering home two main points: (1) the almost unbelievable enormity of the damage to New Orleans and (2) the almost unbelievable callousness and incompetence of almost every level of government, especially the Bush administration, in dealing with the tragedy.

While watching the film, one thought in particular kept bubbling up in my mind: How Katrina is different than almost every other disaster that has preceded it. The thoughts started when I watched some of the residents describe the impact on their lives of losing their home.

An initial reaction was to say, “Yes, this is terrible, but it is hardly unique. Hundreds of people lose their homes every day, due to fire or other natural and man-made causes.”

But I quickly realized that Katrina was unique.

I thought back to an incident in my neighborhood several years ago. A family across the street from where I lived lost their home, due to an electrical fire that quickly grew out of control, started when no one was home. By the time the fire department arrived, it was too late. The house was burned to the ground. My neighbors came home to utter devastation. They literally had nothing left: All of their clothes, all of their photos, all of their possessions they had spent a life time collecting, all of it was gone. Their two young daughters also lost everything they could call their own.

But…and it’s a big but…they still had each other. No lives had been lost. Even their dog (who had been in the house at the time) survived. And given their own financial resources and insurance coverage, they actually managed to rebuild an identical looking house on the same property. They moved into it within a year of the fire! While waiting for the rebuild to be completed, the family rented an apartment for the year. Their kids attended their same familiar school. Their church remained a source of comfort andf support, as did all their friends. And the entire neighborhood was there to welcome them back with a big party when they finally returned.

Compare that to New Orleans and Katrina:

Here lives were lost. And, in numerous instances, people did not learn that a relative had died until months after the storm – because recovery workers were unwilling or unable to search the house. Even if everyone in a family survived, members were often separated and sent to distant locations – to Texas, Utah and beyond. In many cases, it took months for parents and children to discover where everyone wound up and reunite. Most of these families have still not returned to New Orleans.

And of course, the damage was not limited to just a house or even just a couple of homes nearby. Almost the entire city was destroyed. The school where your kids went: gone. The church you attended: gone. The neighborhood where you lived: gone. The stores where you shopped: gone. No electricity or basic plumbing restored even as of today in some cases.

In many neighborhoods, the wreckage of the houses remain on their property – with no confirmed date as to when it will be removed. For many residents, rebuilding remains a dream that will never be realized. Especially with insurance companies often refusing to pay for damages — claiming that it was a flood, an uncovered event, that was the cause of the damage.

Katrina was different. A year later, it still is. It will be years before New Orleans moves past this disaster. It may never completely do so. New Orleans will remain on the map. But the city itself may never be restored to its former self.

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