Katrina: Eight years ago today, Americans couldn’t believe it

Mainers, as did most decent Americans, sat in disbelief on Aug. 29, 2005. As they watched news reports of American citizens dying before their eyes on national television, a colletive gasp circulated throughout the United States.

We all watched as thousands of New Orleanians found themselves marooned on individual islands of isolation. They were on rooftops. They were in attics. They were on bridges. They were either inside the leaking Louisiana Superdome or outside the city’s cavernous convention center. The humidity combined with the squalid conditions didn’t do justice for a nation that all too often castigated others for the treatment of their people.

All of this drama unfolded in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, all of it on national television, live,and in color. Today is the eighth anniversary of the hurricane. Today is the eighth anniversary of our disgrace.

What America watched those followings days was only the beginning of our greatest national shame. Over the next several days and weeks, Americans watched the ineptitude of governement at all levels – national, state and local. They watched President George W. Bush monitor the storm from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, then fly over the devastation aboard Air Force One.

They watched as Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco shed tears, as did a suburban president – who has since gone to jail – on national television. They watched as New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin lost his cool. Nagin has since been indicted.

They watched as images of members of the New Orleans Police Department, to this day notorious for corruption, brutality and sanctioned racial pofiling, gunned down innocent citizens. Several of the rogue cops are now in federal prison for their unimaginable and horrific crimes. Even the U.S. attorney and his top two lieutenants who prosecuted the bad cops has since resigned in disgrace. The Big Easy can sometimes be the big sleezy.

They watched as the body of a burly black man floated upside down on his backside underneath Interstate 10. On Aug. 29, 2005, I-10 in New Orleans was either an evacuation route or a burial ground.

In between, they watched the music rapper Kanye West say on national television that, “President Bush hates black people.” The comment would be one of many that hopscotched the city. On matters of alleged presidential hate, Mainers know a little about such comments.

Americans – and Mainers – watched as the floodwalls, the standing concrete structures that protect large swaths of the city, collapse like dominoes. The gushing water flooded the Lower Ninth Ward, an impoverished but proud New Orleans neighborhood that took the brunt of the damage and suffering. Houses in the Lower Nine, as it has often been called, that once stood on concrete foundations were pushed aside like toys. Houses on streets that once went east-west-north-south were now situated on Katrina embedded cul-de-sacs.

They watched as elderly residents of a local hospital and others in nursing homes perished in the quintessential display of man’s inhumanity toward man. They watched as a Louisiana native and Army general named Russel Honore restored order. They watched as media describe some people as “looting” while they described others ase “finding food.”

Eight years later, Americans – and Mainers – are still watching. They’re still finding. But what do we see?

New Orleans has made an impressive comeback but it has come on the backs on the very people who suffered the most or lost the most, whether it was their homes, their livelihoods or their loved ones. The city’s tourism economy is booming but employment among young African-American men remains staggering. New buildings are rising but older neighborhoods remain devastated. Many people can hardly afford to live there any longer. That’s not recovery. That’s retaliatory.

The Lower Nine is mostly a tourist attraction for those who board buses to gawk while people try to rebuild their lives. The city remains in a mindset that somehow, the people who endured the brunt of the hurricane’s wrath do not deserve to be a part of the city’s resurgence. They are almost being punished for living there.

That same convention center on the Mississippi riverfront, where an elderly woman died in a wheel chair, six months after Katrina struck  hosted a Mardi Gras parade and its extravagant ball. A building that was once America’s largest uncovered indoor cemetery was once again a gigantic dance venue.

Many in the local community believe the city’s unique culture, anchored by its brass bands, impromptu second line parades and flamboyant Mardi Gras Indians, is at the mercy of a new wave of New Orleanians (kind of how native Mainers describe non-Mainers as “flatlanders”), people who supposedly move to their new location for its uniqueness, then turn around and try to legislate drastic changes to it. In New Orleans, they call them gentrifiers. Mountaineers, to match Mainers’ wit, might be more appropriate.

In 2010, Hurricane Irene pummelled Vermont and New England, wiping out entire towns and villages, knocking out bridges and power and causing a loss of life. But few people – especially the news media – stuck around to cover the aftermath. Face it. That narrative doesn’t sell, even though hurricanes tend to be non judgemental.

Very little has been done to improve the plight of the mostly black residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, which became ground zero for all the worst in racial demagoguery in New Orleans. The Lower Ninth Ward today is a vast wasteland of cement slabs surrounded by high grass. It is a conversation piece for the large tour buses that traverse the pot-holed plaqued streets as people try to get their lives back together.

Many believe New Orleans is a better place. Far from it. Crime, especially homicides, continues to be abysmally high. That crime is not because of a culture of death as the current mayor describes it but thanks to a culture of indifference and lack of meaningful opportunity. This has resulted in a high anxiety of anger among the locals. By most accounts, the city is a powder keg in race relations.

Eight years after the nation’s worst natural disaster forever changed the city, a culture that was once the signature of the city is now relegated to second-class citizenship by big developers and self-centered politcal leadership.

As Americans – and Mainers – watch replays and reminders of that awful time eight years ago, they should watch to see who’s asking the paraphased equivalent of a similar question former President Ronald Reagan posed in 1980.

Are they better off today than they were eight years ago? Among those who didn’t want to leave, or couldn’t afford to leave, the answer is a Category 5 no.

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