One Decade Later: A Look Back at Hurricane Katrina’s Wrath

28 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A look back at Hurricane Katrina through the cartoons of Ann Telnaes.

In September, a congressional conference committee will take up the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) amid a political climate far more divided than in 2001, when Congress last reauthorized the legislation as the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).Visiting residents on tidy porch stoops and sampling the fried chicken at a corner restaurant, President Barack Obama held out the people of New Orleans on Thursday as an extraordinary example of renewal and resilience 10 years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. “There’s something in you guys that is just irrepressible,” Obama told hundreds of residents assembled at a bustling new community center in an area of the Lower 9th Ward that was once under 17 feet of water. “The people of New Orleans didn’t just inspire me, you inspired all of America.” Still, Obama acknowledged that much remains to be done.

A decade after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, President Obama stood before survivors of the storm to praise the “extraordinary resilience” of a city whose recovery once seemed unimaginable. “It’s been ten years since Katrina hit, devastating communities in Louisiana and Mississippi and across the Gulf Coast,” Obama said in a speech Thursday in New Orleans marking the anniversary of the storm. “In the days following its landfall, more than 1,800 of our fellow citizens – men, women and children – lost their lives.” While acknowledging the tragedy of “families stranded on rooftops, bodies in the streets,” the president emphasized the hard work of a local community whose recovery efforts had inspired him and the rest of the country. “We acknowledge this loss and this pain, not to dwell on the loss and the pain, not to wallow in grief,” Obama said. “The project of rebuilding here wasn’t just to rebuild the city as it had been, but to rebuild the city as it should be.” Earlier in the day, the president met with residents still working to rebuild their neighborhoods after the storm made landfall in Louisiana as a Category 3 hurricane, bringing 130-mile-per-hour winds and a nearly 30-foot storm surge that collapsed the levees surrounding New Orleans, flooding the city and destroying more than 1 million homes and businesses. For all of its weaknesses, NCLB drew on the civil rights traditions of liberals and the free-market instincts of conservatives, holding the education establishment accountable for focusing on historically disenfranchised students and providing American families unprecedented public school choice. Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, unleashed floods that killed nearly 2,000 people, left thousands of others homeless and caused an estimated $250 billion in damage. In seeking compromise among the more divided conservatives and liberals of today, Congress might look to the education renaissance in post-Katrina New Orleans for evidence that progress in American schools relies on a bipartisan approach to education policy. He used the moment Thursday to note the U.S. economy staged a far bigger rebound last quarter than first thought, growing at an annual rate of 3.7 percent.

Bobby Jindal, a long-shot Republican presidential candidate who has expressed doubt about man-made climate change, told the president in a letter to reconsider his message. In the wake of such destruction, Obama said, the city’s racial and class-based inequalities were brought to the forefront. “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 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 healthcare or decent housing,” he remarked. Obama also acknowledged that while “the progress you’ve made is remarkable,” New Orleans continues to be a city plagued by generations of poverty, violence, and racial and economic inequality that was laid bare by the storm. “Like a body weakened already, undernourished already, when the storm hit, there were no resources to fall back on,” the president said. “As hard as rebuilding levees is, as hard as rebuilding houses is, real change, real lasting structural change, that’s even harder.”

Obama, on his 10th visit to the coastal city, remarked that New Orleans’ recovery is a model for the nation in urban innovation and disaster response and resilience. The anniversary, Jindal wrote, is a time to mourn the dead, not bring up a topic that’s part of the “divisive political agenda of liberal environmental activism.” As the earth’s temperature rises, warmer weather adds energy to storms, increasing their severity. Video of residents seeking refuge on rooftops, inside the Superdome and at the convention center dominated news coverage as Katrina came to symbolize government failure at every level.

More than $14 billion has been spent to reinforce levees that failed to protect New Orleans. “We are going to see more extreme weather events as the result of climate change, deeper droughts, deadlier wildfires, stronger storms,” he said. “That’s why in in addition to things like new and better levies, we have also been investing in restoring wetlands and other natural systems that are just as critical for storm protection.” Prior to his speech Thursday, Obama and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu walked through the historic African American neighborhood of Treme, home to jazz legends. However, he recalled the words of a survivor he visited at a displacement center in Houston: “We had nothing before the hurricane, now we have less than nothing.” The setting of his address at the community center spoke to the stark contrasts that remain. The area is filled with vacant lots where houses used to stand, so overgrown that local residents sometimes refer to it as the wilderness and worry about snakes hiding in the grass. Colette Pichon Battle, executive director of Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, cautioned against slapping too happy a face on New Orleans, saying “rebuilding since the storm favors privileged private enterprise and this illusion of recovery is not progress.” “I think we have a long way to go,” said Lisa Ross, 52, an appraiser.

He later spoke to reporters about the community’s revitalization. “Part of our goal has always been to make sure not just that we recover from this storm, but also that we start dealing with some of the structural inequities that existed long before the storm happened.” President Obama pointed out that just because the residents have nice housing, does not mean the job is done, noting the need to combat poverty, income inequality, and a lack of affordable housing, particularly among the African American community. The Obama administration hopes these types of climate projects could lessen the impact of future storms. “There’s no denying what scientists tell us, which is that there’s reason to be concerned about these storms getting worse and more violent,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday. Looking forward, Obama drew inspiration from the people who hit the ground running and rolled up their sleeves to help their neighbors in recovery efforts. The Bush administration’s response appeared tone-deaf to the disaster and the President continued with his regular schedule, traveling to the West from his Texas ranch to deliver a speech. Harold Washington, 54, a military retiree studying at Tulane, said the city is “better than it was.” But he was sad that children are now bused all over town rather than attending neighborhood schools.

The Recovery School District then established a process whereby parents could apply to nearly any school in the city for admission, no matter where they live. Barbara Bush, the former First Lady and mother of President Bush, toured the Houston Astrodome where many evacuees from New Orleans were transferred to and demonstrated where George W’s tone-deafness might have been inherited from. About 2,000 square miles of land have already disappeared into the Gulf, and without action, another 1,750 square miles could be lost over the next 50 years, leaving New Orleans largely unprotected from storms, it added.

While looking through my archives of cartoons, the images I saw on television during the hurricane have been replaying in my head in the last few days — the desperate people on rooftops frantically waving for help, the crowds of people in the Louisiana Superdome, the lifeless bloated bodies floating in the standing water. This school choice program for parents, budgeting and hiring autonomy for principals, and stringent accountability for charter school boards has worked. The result is a uniquely responsive school system, one that regularly and quickly creates solutions to the daily challenges of poverty and disability. But ultimately, what we also have to do is make sure that we don’t continue to see ocean levels rise, oceans getting warmer, storms getting stronger.”

It happened because New Orleans has blended the best of the liberal civil rights tradition and the conservative entrepreneurship tradition to yield schools that are uncommonly focused and unendingly creative. As with the changes in the New Orleans education landscape, the federal education law exists to protect children whom the system has tended not to protect.

Congress has a chance this fall to streamline regulation, sustain the nation’s commitment to accountability and empower parents to direct their children’s education.

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