To the Point for 8/31/06

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TUESDAY WAS AN ANNIVERSARY. Along with couples who celebrate being married on August 29th; and people who celebrate the anniversary of their birth that day; August 29th, 2006, is also a somber anniversary.

It marked the one year anniversary of the failure of the levee system in the city of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina – and the beginning of 12 months of struggle for people up and down the Gulf Coast, from Alabama to Louisiana and Mississippi.

In some ways it seems like only yesterday that we all watched one of this country’s most popular cities slowly sink in the rising waters. In some ways it seems like a lifetime ago.

For the people who survived those times, they must also feel those same emotions.

The one year anniversary has brought the situation back into the national spotlight – and sadly that’s where it should have stayed for the past year.

Somehow, as Americans we assumed that when they turned off the television cameras and stopped having special reports, that the matter had been resolved and that everyone was back home and happy.

Now a year later, we again see images of destroyed homes and empty streets; only this time it is a year later, and no one has come home to begin the clean up of private property.

The government is allowed to clean up public properties and streets and highways, but it does not venture onto private land. The government cannot make a determination as to whether or not a building should be demolished and hauled off – that’s up to the property owners, and they haven’t come back.

People who were displaced from that area have moved on to other areas of the country. They have started new lives. Their children are back in school. New jobs have been found. New Orleans is a distant memory.

But it is also a reality.

With lot after lot covered with debris, the city still has the look of chaos that it did 12 months ago. But now, the question is: will the people ever come back? And, if they don’t, when will this mess ever get cleaned up?

We have all seen the reopening of the French Quarter. Mardi Gras was held and the Saints will again play football games in the Superdome; but all of that remains a facade to the real critical situations that are being faced by the city and its residents that have returned.

Broken water lines spill millions of gallons of water into the streets everyday. The city’s timeline calls for the repair work to begin sometime in the spring of next year.

Nearly three-quarters of the city’s hospitals have not yet reopened. The same goes for many of the local businesses, such as grocery stores and clothing stores – all of which have little impact on tourism but are critical to having a community return for daily life.

The Army Corps of Engineers continues to work on rebuilding the levee system in an effort to stop all of this from happening again. This time the levee is concrete, no dirt, and an apron of concrete at the wall’s base also provides protection from overflowing water being able to erode away the base.

One of the most eerie moments that I have seen are reports of people walking down empty streets with no noise except for the continuous beeping of smoke detectors inside the demolished homes. In the rubble, the batteries of those smoke detectors, now at least a year old, are telling the homeowner that power is low and the batteries need to be replaced.

If only smoke detectors had eyes to see, they would understand that their pleading is the least of a person’s worries.

They left and have no intention of returning.

A year later, or a lifetime.

My family had the opportunity to visit New Orleans in the summer of 2004. Although not exactly my “cup of tea”, we did find an entire city outside of the French Quarter that was alive with music and warmth and friendly people. They were proud of their city and their place in it; and were more than willing to direct you to some special site or out of the way restaurant.

We walked near the Convention Center, that a year later would be the scene of almost inhuman acts as desperate people tried to survive. We browsed through shops that we later saw being looted.

It’s now been a year since Hurricane Katrina wrote its name on our minds and in our history books. It’s Hurricane season again, and as you read this the southern portion of Florida has been evacuated.

Have we learned anything from the past year? Can we handle what might lie ahead? Or are we doomed to simply pick up the pieces and ask ourselves how this could have ever happened again.

Are we learning? Or simply reacting?