A sobering anniversary
Alabama's Gulf Coast took a comparatively glancing blow from the hurricane one year ago, but Bayou la Batre still remains locked in a struggle for survival as residents of the Mobile County fishing town where 80 percent of damaged homes were uninsured try to find ways to rebuild and preserve their way of life.
To the west, Louisiana and Mississippi, which bore the brunt of the storm, are doing far worse. In New Orleans, which received the bulk of the media attention in the weeks after Katrina, many of the poor neighborhoods look little better now than they did when the floodwaters receded, and a great deal of the city's infrastructure is still down for the count. Less than half of the population is back, and some people fear many black residents never will return to the Big Easy. Furthermore, even if most New Orleanians go back, it's unclear that the levies will be strong enough to protect them if another Katrina-type storm strikes any time soon.
The story is, if anything, even more depressing in many remote areas of the two states. No hospitals or libraries are open today in Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish, and fewer than one in 10 of the public schools there are back in session. Meanwhile, areas of Mississippi's Gold Coast remain largely isolated and almost devoid of economic activity. As one volunteer matter-of-factly described the region, "it's been devastated, and it's desolate." Even half of the once-thriving casinos are still completely closed.
Katrina wrought unprecedented havoc on the Gulf Coast, and one year is hardly enough time to expect anything approaching a full recovery. Still, as we enter year two of the post-Katrina era, the widespread nature of the lingering struggles is a painful reminder that Mother Nature doesn't care whether you haggled over the design specifications or whether you finalized the evacuation plan or whether you wanted to take a vacation. Mother Nature marches to her own drummer, and she strikes whenever she's ready.
Katrina's enormity was apparent days before landfall, but despite that, some Gulf Coast residents chose to take their chances by trying to ride out the storm in their homes. Even if federal, state, and local politicians had given the very best prepatory and response efforts possible, some people, perhaps hundreds, still would have died. What has to haunt those officials, though -- and what should haunt all of us -- is the knowledge that many of the people who lost their lives in the wind and floodwaters and heat wanted out but couldn't escape. They were too old, too sick, too poor. They just weren't loud enough or powerful enough to be properly accounted for before the hurricane hit. Effectively, they were forgotten.
One year later, if we've learned nothing else from Katrina, we should learn never to forget again.