What kind of government reconstructs infrastructure halfway around the world and leaves its fourth-largest port community to rebuild with charity?
Happy Mardi Gras! Or more appropriately now, Ash Wednesday.
Boy, New Orleans has really changed. I'm staying near the Lindy Boggs Medical Center. The parking lot lighting is still lying on the ground and the windows are all boarded up. It hasn't opened since Hurricane Katrina struck more than two years ago. The neighbors tell me it will never open again.
September 2005 seems like yesterday. I remember the first mother I met who had lost a baby to the hurricane floods; she barely moved, hardly ate, and didn't speak - at least not until we heard that Hurricane Rita was coming. Then this traumatized mom dragged herself from her cot in the River Center, Louisiana's largest semipermanent shelter, and asked us to go find her baby.
Nobody could believe that this woman had waited weeks to tell people that her baby was missing. The woman said that initially she thought she would just wait for the authorities to find her little girl and then figured they would come and get her. But, she explained, she decided to ask us for help when she learned that a new hurricane was on its way.
I went to Baton Rouge with the Red Cross relief workers. I broadcast live on several area radio stations and wrote cover stories for another Maine newspaper. After seeing the gratuitous devastation for myself I know one thing: If you've ever said anything nasty about the folks in New Orleans during or after Hurricane Katrina, then you weren't there.
First of all, for an incredible number of Gulf Coast residents Katrina came as a pretty big surprise. After all, if the mayor, governor and president weren't fretting, why would the residents? And with the lowest wage earners making the national minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, how could these ordinary folks afford to do anything anyway?
There was no excuse for the government underestimating Katrina, but no average person fathomed that a calamity the size of Katrina could strike with the speed, intensity and fury that it did.
Within 24 hours of Katrina hitting land, New Orleans' Ninth Ward was under 8 feet of water. When the water rose, people drowned.
Back to the lady and her daughter. When the water started rising in this woman's house, she knew she had to get help. But the streets were a wall of water and she didn't dare take her son and baby girl with her. She told her little boy to sit on the dresser and hold his sister high up out of the water and she would come right back.
When she found some folks with a boat she returned to her home to save her children. But it had taken too long. The baby was heavy, the little boy couldn't hold her anymore, and she had drowned. Because the guys with the boat needed room in their rescue craft for other survivors they left the baby's body behind. I don't know if she ever recovered the body.
New Orleans has reopened for business. The Mardi Gras parades are back, hospitality abounds and food tantalizes; but the curse of Katrina remains.
Many folks have come back, a few never left and many will never return. For the folks who live here, the rubble and makeshift safety devices are reminders that their lives will never be the same. But deep inside they already know. They're victims of living in a city without defenses.
Residents live in fear, still surrounded by FEMA trailers and rotting buildings, the city's mortality rate's through the roof - 43 percent higher then before the storm contaminated the environment with toxic chemicals and mold. Depression's a problem too - the suicide rate is nearly three times what it was before the storm.
New Orleans, the nation's fourth-largest port, home to the country's greatest domestic disaster, still needs your help. You can go to www.levees.org or www.all4energy.org and make a contribution - they're just two of the nongovernmental organizations trying to solve the problems here. Or write to your favorite government official and ask what he or she intends to do.