In the last week of August 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall three times along the Gulf Coast, causing catastrophic destruction, large-scale dislocation, and profound human suffering. Ten years later, the full toll of the storm remains unknown, and necessarily somewhat indeterminate. As of 2008, for example, public health researchers had determined that Katrina was the direct cause of 986 deaths in Louisiana; earlier this year, public health researchers with the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals revised the figure upward, to as high as 1170. Also uncertain is how much progress towards recovery has been made since then.
There’s not much debate, however, over the moral imperative for the latter effort, although the leaders who visited New Orleans this week offered different assessments of the progress made thus far. George W. Bush, who was president at the time and was widely excoriated for the federal government’s desultory crisis management, focused on the progress that has been made in New Orleans’ public schools over the past decade. Barack Obama, who is president now, praised the resilience of the local people, but decried the cities’ persistent inequities.
Both perspectives are valid. The need for progress was actually evident enough before the storm made it unignorable. Almost 90% of the people killed in Louisiana, according to the aforementioned public health researchers, lived in two of the state’s 64 parishes–Orleans and St. Bernard. More than half of the dead were African American, although only a third of the state’s residents are black. And although many of Katrina’s victims were made vulnerable by pre-existing conditions, such age, illness, and poverty, a quarter of the people killed by the storm drowned. This the United States and the 21st century; major cities should have better infrastructure. And New Orleans isn’t America’s only vulnerable coastal city; if you haven’t already read my colleague Robert Draper’s cover story about Galveston Island, from the August issue, I would encourage you to do so.
Progress takes time, though–and a decade isn’t much time, compared to the lifetime of a nation, God willing. And so I’d like to add one more article to the many commemorations and updates in circulation this week. In the aftermath of the storm, my colleague John Spong spent several weeks reporting from Houston, where thousands of evacuees had taken shelter in the Astrodome. His dispatch, “Dome Away From Home”, appeared in the November 2005 issue:
I looked at the kid, who stood there in silence. His eyes surveyed the crowd, the magnitude of the task at hand still a happier thought than the prospect that there might not be any use in pursuing it. His father was alive or he wasn’t. The son looked as if he might be saying a prayer or wondering if it wasn’t about time to start. “I’ve got to go find my dad,” he said, and then walked down through the stands and onto the floor. I saw him about an hour later. He was still looking. I never saw him again after that.
This is a heart-rending story, but not an unhopeful one. Texas received several hundred thousand evacuees after Katrina, many of whom are still here today. As many Texans will remember, it wasn’t an entirely seamless transition; there were the usual flaring tempers and frayed nerves you can expect when a state receives an unexpected influx of newcomers, many of them traumatized and dispossessed, as is typically the case when you’re looking at an unexpected influx. Still, Texas’s response to Katrina has to count as one of our state’s finest moments. We saw real leadership from people like Rick Perry, then the governor, and Bill White, then the Mayor of Houston, among many others, and real graciousness on the part of millions of Texans, who welcomed so many neighbors at their time of need. I’d like to think that’s who we are. And I’d like to think it’s a good reminder for us today, since ten years later we have the flaring tempers and frayed nerves without the proximate cause of a historic natural disaster: when people work together, progress is possible.