It's been five years since Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and five years since my sister died.
I remembered that way last week because while my family and I sat in her front room with her slipping into oblivion in the bedroom, the television was showing video of neighborhoods in New Orleans drowned out. I remember the images I saw that day, but didn't care much. At the time personal tragedy overtook the national one going on at the Gulf Coast.
My sister couldn't help what happened to her. Cancer had attacked her body for over 10 years and she was dying in the bedroom she and her husband had shared for three decades. It was a personal disaster for our family and particularly for my dad, who I swear died six months later because she passed away that late summer day. Kids should always outlive their parents, because moms and dads get a hollow spot in their hearts after the death of a child, a place that cannot be filled up by others, even other children. My father was never the same after that, but still plugged along through his 92nd birthday and into the next year, dying at least partially of a broken heart on the first day of spring in 2006.
But this piece isn't about personal tragedy as much as it is about national ones. Ones that could be prevented. What is and isn't someones fault may seem irrelevant in the middle of a disaster, but it is afterwards when people start to point fingers.
The disaster in New Orleans in 2005 was one of those things where there were a lot of people to blame, but of course most blamed the government. People said there were no flood control plans, the levies were old and decrepit, the response by all branches of government was slow and the evacuation was disorganized.
When something bad happens, we all want to blame someone. There are many things we can control, but there are many things we can't. I don't want to single New Orleans out, but it is a good example of living in the shadow of destruction and then not having the will power to do something about it after one realizes the precarious situation they are in. The founders of the city knew it was at sea level when they built there and as the town expanded people took land away from the ocean as well. Land that would normally have water on it was used to build houses, businesses, etc. Some of the city is below sea level. I don't mean to be callous, but even for the simplest of minds water does run into low spots when it spills over. And during Katrina it spilled big time, enough to breach levees.
But this city isn't the only example of this. Other cities are similar to it. Last year I visited Galveston, Texas. Galveston is an island that has been overrun a couple of times by huge hurricanes. While not below sea level, I bet the highest point on the whole island isn't 10 feet above that. In the late 1800s a hurricane took thousands of lives there, basically wiping the slate and the island clean of people and structures. The people that had lived on the island rebuilt. The last hurricane, because of the modern technology of weather prediction, cost few lives. But a beat up truck sitting on broken dock standing out in the middle of the ocean off the coast and foundations of houses lining roads that no longer have anyone living on them testifies to the strength of the last storm and what a hurricane can do.
New Orleans is a neat city and Galveston is a beautiful island, both pleasant places to visit. Yet both are right on the edge of destruction, having faced it and rebuilt a number of times. Florida too sticks out into the ocean just asking to be hit by big storms. Farther north the Georgia, South and North Carolina coasts often get hit with large storms. The barrier islands along the North Carolina coast are in the news for destruction every other year it seems. Each time one of these monster hurricanes come through they seem to destroy a place that only a few years ago was rebuilt from another storm.
Nature will be nature and anyone, anywhere can face a disaster from fire to flood to tornado to earthquake. But when events like these are repetitive, it's like the "fool me once" quote that George Bush is so famous for. Problem is when those disasters happen time and time again they become the burden of all of us. It seems to me we are the ones being fooled. We pay for it through our insurance premiums, our charities, and certainly through our federal taxes.
Once again, as it seems many things are in our culture today, it is a question of responsibility. We all should take up the slack to help out fellow citizens who are in need during a disaster, but how often should we do it when they keep making the same mistakes over and over again? In this case the mistake is continuing to live and build in a place where destruction at some point over a 30 years cycle seems assured. Where the laws of nature and physics say that water and wind will wipe out everything that stands? Where common sense says maybe we, and those that want to live there, should do something different.