(Editor’s Note: Looking back at Hurricane Katrina one year later, I find myself wondering what we learned from this – anything? A year later, New Orleans is still a mess and most have not been able to return to their homes. The editorial listed below ran in the Living Out Loud column on September l4 of last year.)
I’ve held on to it all these years – this green sweatshirt with a big red crawfish on the front – the caption reading “New Orleans Crawfish.” I found it in a bottom dresser drawer.
That morning, when New Orleans was at its bleakness, I dug out my old sweatshirt and turned off the television for awhile, needed a break from all the news about the flooding, the hurricane, the looting and the evacuation. I wanted to stop thinking about the thousands of people left dead in what was left of their homes or dead in the water that’s full of gas and sewage or those simply left to rot on the sidewalks.
I put on the old sweatshirt, poured myself a cup of coffee and went and sat down in my chair on my porch. I took a deep breath. Memories of The Big Easy started to come back.
James talked me into going down with him for Mardi Gras, February, 1975. His Chevy was old and we weren’t sure if it would make it – but when you’re young, you don’t really think anything bad is going to happen to you. And we were young, both 21 years old.
I never talk much about the trip, mainly because I remember so little about it. I was 21 and could drink. That’s what I did in New Orleans. Booze was everywhere.
The parade, jazz music, people laughing – even buying that sweatshirt is all kind of a blur. I remember James holding me up a lot, helping me walk, because I was so drunk. I remember a blonde girl – who I think was topless – French kissing me on the sidewalk. I remember laughing so hard at things I now can’t even remember.
We only stayed a few days. I was sick as a dog in the back of James’s car on the way home to Cincinnati. James assured me I had a good time and we would be heading back the following year.
But we never went back. Life happened. I got married, had kids and got lost in the corporate world of trying to make a buck. New Orleans simply became a hazy memory. As I sat there in my chair, I found myself feeling sad about it.
I want New Orleans to come back to life and hope we don’t start looking the other way in the weeks and months ahead. Sooner or later, a celebrity will do something that will knock it off the front page. That’s wrong. I want the media to keeping rubbing our noses in it. We need to learn from it.
If anything good has come out of this disaster, it’s that maybe the press seems to have gotten their balls back. Since 9/11 and the war in Iraq, major media sources have let hard questions go or look the other way when bad decisions are made. That’s changed with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
It does my heart good to see the press come after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff with the question of why did the Federal Government wait so long to act? That question has been asked many times with Chertoff saying “what we did right and what we did wrong” will be examined later. He got that line from President Bush who doesn’t know how to answer the question either. It’s pretty clear to me politics and bureaucracy continue to live even in the face of a natural disaster.
Local governments have questions to answer too. The Louisiana Hurricane Evacuation Plan states mandatory evacuation is done by private transportation and for those who don’t have it, school and municipal buses are to be used. The mandatory evacuation didn’t exist for the poor and for the most part; no buses were used to take them away from the city.
Why not, Major Ray Nagin? And Governor Kathleen Blanco: Why wasn’t the National Guard called in to secure the city before the storm? Why didn’t you ask for additional troops later when the city was in total panic? Why did people die when they could have been saved? The media needs to keep asking these questions until they are honestly answered.
As the floodwaters keep receding, I want the media to keep showing us the debris, the sewage and even the dead bodies. Maybe they can report something about these people – who they were and who loved them. I also want the media to show us the cleanup, the rebuilding of New Orleans and some happy endings with families being reunited. Again, I want it all in my face. I want to keep remembering I’m a lucky, lucky man.
When I took off that crawfish sweatshirt, I decided not to put it back in a drawer. I draped it over a chair in my study so I will always see it. I don’t want to forget this nightmare. None of us should.