On Monday I attended an ecumenical prayer service at St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter marking the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
The homily was delivered by a guest minister from another religion whose sermon was of the same tone as the infamous rhetorical ejaculation nervously blurted out by Kanye West that cast a pall over a nationally broadcast fundraising event intended to provide aid to hundreds of thousands of people who had suffered greatly.
The remarks included snide references to the “ceremonial flyover” New Orleans by the president after Katrina and the ineptitude of then-FEMA director Michael Brown.
As this man of God crassly exploited the pulpit in the city’s iconic house of worship to inject a partisan message at what was supposed to be an event to bring people of different religions and races together to thank God for His blessings, I began to think about a speech that had been delivered just a few hundred feet away almost a decade ago by the target of the minister’s ire.
About two weeks after Katrina had driven the waters of the Gulf of Mexico into the living rooms of hundreds of thousands of people, President George W. Bush addressed the nation from Jackson Square where he acknowledged the breakdown in the immediate relief efforts and recognized the good Samaritans who came through where the federal bureaucracy failed.
The president pledged the national government’s support in the recovery of New Orleans at a time when political figures, including high ranking ones in his own party, questioned the wisdom of investing billions of federal dollars in bringing back a city with an average elevation that is about a foot below sea level.
When President Bush declared, “we will do what it takes”, he made a promise to the Katrina diaspora, including this exile in Arizona, that our communities would be rebuilt and that we would one day be able to return home.
After ten years of legislative maneuvering, financial allocations, contract letting and massive construction activity, the flower of the area’s physical recovery is in full bloom.
Numerous state of the art education and cultural arts facilities are completed and have been occupied by students for the past five years.
New hospitals and medical centers are providing health care for the public.
And the New Orleans area enjoys improved flood protection through strengthened levees and upgraded pump stations, infrastructure that has since been tested in hurricanes that had followed in Katrina and Rita’s wake only two years later.
And the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, the little used ship channel that decimated local wetlands as a conduit for saltwater intrusion and an express lane for storm surges, has been mercifully plugged.
While the damage inflicted by the MRGO will never be fully mitigated, its closure was welcomed by many who had argued that the channel would one day make the New Orleans area vulnerable to a disaster that would manifest itself in 2005.
While Barack Obama will be speaking in a few of these newly constructed buildings during his visit to New Orleans on Thursday, it was his predecessor who was responsible for having them built.
Hurricane Katrina is considered the low point of George W. Bush’s presidency yet the area’s recovery since he made his Jackson Square pledge ought to be recognized as a tremendous accomplishment for his administration, as a major American city that was mostly destroyed was rebuilt in relatively quick order.
I’ll understand if many locals who were on the ground on August 29th (and in the water shortly thereafter) carry with them resentment over the immediate incompetent federal response to Katrina, even if much of the blame should be laid at the feet of the state.
But to not recognize the clear achievements of the area’s reconstruction that was initiated by the Bush Administration is to deny reality, or rather ignore it as it was from the pulpit on Monday evening.
George W. Bush cannot be blamed for Katrina though he should be credited with having provided the state of Louisiana and local jurisdictions the federal support to rebuild communities that were flattened in the worst disaster in the nation’s history.
Thank you Mr. President for honoring your commitment to the people of the New Orleans area.