Years ago I worked with a young African American man who had grown up in New Orleans and then traveled to a small town in northern Minnesota to attend college on a basketball scholarship. When I asked him why he had made that unlikely journey, he said, “Growing up in New Orleans I looked around at my friends and family and realized that if I was going to survive, I had to get out of there. And so I took the only chance I had.”
By the time I met him, he had graduated from college and earned a Master’s Degree. We hired him to work with young urban students who were struggling in school. He was one of the most talented and gifted staff members I ever worked with. I learned a lot from him and couldn’t help but think of all the other talented young people like him who didn’t survive.
All of that happened before Katrina. But I thought of the world that young man grew up in when I heard what President Obama had to say in New Orleans yesterday.
And we came to realize that what started out as a natural disaster became a manmade disaster — a failure of government to look out for its own citizens. And the storm laid bare a deeper tragedy that had been brewing for decades because we came to understand that New Orleans, like so many cities and communities across the country, had for too long been plagued by structural inequalities that left too many people, especially poor people, especially people of color, without good jobs or affordable health care or decent housing. Too many kids grew up surrounded by violent crime, cycling through substandard schools where few had a shot to break out of poverty. And so like a body weakened already, undernourished already, when the storm hit, there was no resources to fall back on.
There were actually three phases to the “storm” that rocked the city of New Orleans. First came the kind of devastation wrought by our neglect of major metropolitan areas all across this country. In New Orleans, that is what led the young man I worked with to recognize that he needed to leave in order to survive. Included here would be our failure to reinforce the levees – as had been recommended by the experts for years. Second came the actual storm. And third came the failure of both the state and federal government to respond. The suffering we all witnessed as a result is almost too difficult to comprehend.
Here is how President Obama summed it up in 2007:
America failed the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast long before that failure showed up on our television sets. America failed them again during Katrina. We cannot — we must not — fail for a third time.
The President went on to make some promises to the people of New Orleans. This week Politifact reported on the progress to date.
* Strengthen the levees – Compromise
* Restore wetlands – Promise Kept
* Housing relief – Compromise
* Establish new crime programs – Promise Kept
* Improve transportation – Compromise
* Rebuild schools – Promise Kept
* Rebuild hospitals – Promise Kept
* Direct oil revenue for costal protection – Promise Broken
Progress has been made, but a lot remains to be done.