This was originally published in 2009. But with Hurricane Isaac threatening the coast, I thought we should remember the lessons we learned.
Nearly two years after Katrina wrecked New Orleans, I found myself sitting on my couch revisiting Spike Lee's "When The Levees Broke." After watching for nearly an hour, all of the emotions I had watching CNN two years prior came back. The first was the sadness. How could this happen in America? The second was anger. Are the lives of the Black and poor so worthless that we let them drown like rats? And the final emotion was guilt. Why didn't I do more? The first two emotions didn't surprise me, but the guilt... well the overwhelming feeling of guilt punched me in gut 'til I was doubled over. I had to ask myself: Why was I guilty? What did I do (or not do)?
Of course I watched in horror for days as New Orleans sank. I cried at night and prayed for those in that urban swamp. I was immediately angry at the federal government's lack of action. I mean, really, the federal government can get to the Tsunami faster then they can take 65 South to the 10? That just didn't - and still doesn't - make sense to me. So when the evacuees began arriving in my city, I immediately went and donated money to assist. I naively bought every Black Barbie at Target to take to the shelter. Why? The shelter was at a local white church and I thought the little Black girls that had lost so much would need something they could recognize. I knew how much that Barbie would mean to my daughters and as a mother I thought it would help.
So I dropped off my donations and went home feeling proud of myself until the next morning. Then it hit me: You could've done more. Yep, I said it out loud. I failed the folks of New Orleans. You failed the folks of New Orleans. (And truth be told we are still failing them now. But I'll get to that a little bit later.) I blamed FEMA for waiting but why did I wait? Why didn't I go to my pastor and ask for the 5 buses we use every Sunday to shuttle people from the parking lot to the sanctuary to head to NOLA? Why didn't I call my local civic organization or sorority and say "hey, let's charter a bus and go"? Why didn't I drive my minivan down and stage at a cousin's house in Baton Rouge and offer my assistance? Hell, I knew they had no food and water. Anderson Cooper and Soledad Obrien showed me that on CNN. So why didn't I take my Barbie money and go to Sam's, buy water and head to the Superdome? I didn't because I thought someone else would do it. Surely, FEMA would do it. Day 1, no FEMA. Surely, the Army, Air Force, Navy or Marines would step in and help. Right? But on day 2, no armed forces. Ok, surely the State guard would do something. Umm, it's day 3 and they still aren't there. OK, surely someone, anyone would do something. What I failed to realize is that the "someone, anyone" was me. I failed to do anything substantial. I did what was comfortable.
Sure, I was busy. I have a job. I have a husband. I was in grad school at the time. I have 2 children. I have a house to maintain. I have things to do. People here are counting on me right here, right? All of that is true, but people in New Orleans were counting on me too and I let them down. And guess what? Chances are you let them down too. So I sincerely apologize not only for my lack of action but also my frivolous actions. But don't accept my apology yet, I have more to atone for.
I also apologize for not learning from my lack of action and your pain. (Remember I mentioned a couple of paragraphs back that we are still failing NO, so here it is.) What are the lessons of Katrina? They range from the lofty to the tangible. Don't be frivolous with money. Save for a rainy day. Keep more than adequate insurance. Take care of your family and your community. Have an escape plan. Never let the gas tank go below ½ full. Cherish education. Have an axe in the attic. Have emergency supplies ready at all times. I'm sure there are other lessons but these are the ones that I swore I would never forget, but did I. Not all of them but I let some slip by me. I've always cherished my education and the education of my children, but do I actively assist other children and fight for the quality of their schools. Do you? My gas tank has been low more than once since Katrina, and I thought "it can wait until later." My emergency supplies consist of 1 flashlight, 2 cans of tuna, some fruit cocktail and 1 jug of water. Will that sustain a family of 4 for more than 10 minutes? I don't think so. What do you have stored up? My money is doing ok right now, but lord knows I am eyeing a new living room suite that will take my savings back to zero. What should I do? And isn't it sad that I even have to ask? So to all the residents of New Orleans (both those in the city and displaced) I apologize once again for not learning from your pain. I've often said that if we (as a people) knew better, then we would do better. Well, we've seen first hand what can happen, but are we doing better?
So here on this 2nd anniverary of Katrina, let's not just watch the Spike Lee joint. Let's honor the people that died - and those that fought to survive - by learning from their pain and making our communities better.