I grew up in Houston, Texas – no stranger to the threat of hurricanes. Houston’s last big hurricane was Hurricane Alicia in 1983. I was 5 years old. Alicia was the only major hurricane that year, and the first hurricane to strike the US since 1980. We were lucky enough to be out of town on vacation at the time. We lived about 30 miles inland from the coast. We arrived home to see a couple shattered windows, lost shingles and a damaged backyard fence. Otherwise the storms I experienced were minor tropical storms and category 1’s.
In college, I studied natural hazards including hurricanes. We learned that because of the topography (land shape) around New Orleans, a direct hit by a large hurricane would be catastrophic for the city. The government knew it. City planners knew it. Citizens knew it.
One year ago today, as Hurricane Katrina pounded the central Gulf Coast, I was making my way to central Texas for a golf tournament. I was awestruck by what I saw unfolding live on television and the internet. Katrina would strike New Orleans almost head-on with awesome force. The media noted the shape of the “New Orleans Bowl” and how the storm surge was coming from the ocean, while Lake Pontchartrain could spill into the city from the North. Catastrophe was inevitable. Late that evening, news outlets reported how New Orleans had “dodged a bullet” because the brunt of the storm stayed to the east of the city. The city had suffered major wind damage, but the true disaster was knocking on the door.
The following morning, August 30 I woke up to see aerial images of the flooded city. Thousands of residents had remained in the city in spite of mandatory evacuation orders. Over the next several days I asked myself how they could be so lazy & dumb. If the government tells me to evacuate, I’m getting the heck out of Dodge! If I know this area could flood, I don’t move my family there. I questioned how they could let themselves get trapped in their own attics.
In hindsight a year later, I realized that not everyone was able to just leave town. Some of them had no vehicles, or money for a plane, bus or taxi. Some of them were caring for elderly, bed-ridden parents. Some of them could afford no other housing but the below-sea-level 9th Ward. The world really began to see the decline of humanity in New Orleans over the following week. Elderly people and babies were dying in the streets, in the heat for lack of food, water and medicine. At first I thought that there was no way for help to reach the victims due to the flooded streets. But if NBC can find a way to get a box of beef jerky to Brian Williams, there was a passable road somewhere and the National Guard had a way into the city.
Back to the point of this whole thing… I now regret thinking all of the negative thoughts I had toward the people of New Orleans. I was overcome by the scenes of crime and lootings. I looked down upon them. I assigned the fault to them for not having an education or jobs. I don’t know what I would have done in their situation. But I surely would have given my life to feed my wife and daughter. I see that is all they were trying to do for the most part. They were just trying to survive in a world where they had been failed by their own government.
America had never experienced an event like this on such a scale. The powers that be sure did make a mess of it all, beginning with the New Orleans Police Department all the way up to President Bush. It is my hope that they have all learned from their mistakes. The heroic efforts by many are not to be ignored, such as the NOPD officers who remained on the job after the storm working around the clock. The doctors who stayed downtown at the convention center assisting the sick and dehydrated. Ordinary people understood that if they didn’t make something happen, it wasn’t doing to get done. Help from the government was trapped in a web of red tape. My hope and prayer is that this all goes more smoothly and safely next time around.