Tuesday, August 30, 2005

What can I do? Where do we start?

As you all know, the Gulf Coast has been devastated by the winds, rain and flooding of Hurricane Katrina. What so many people are just beginning to understand is the crisis that is on the hands of the people in the New Orleans area. Even I underestimated the impact this storm would have on New Orleans – as the storm made landfall, I thought we had dodged another bullet. Monday night, as I tried to wrap my mind around what actually happened in a place I love so dearly, the more I think about it, the harder it is to comprehend.

It started with a hole being ripped in the roof of the Superdome, the first sight I saw as I opened my eyes at 6am Monday. During the course of the day, hundreds of thousands lost their homes to extensive flooding. 80% of the city is now underwater. People used hatchets, axes, and even shotguns to create holes in their ceilings in order to crawl out onto their roofs. Bodies were floating in the floodwater in certain areas. In St. Bernard, people are screaming for help, but cannot be located, and they’re trapped in their attics. In Metairie, structures are burning, and fire trucks cannot get to them. The Twin Span, a 5-mile section of I-10 connecting New Orleans to Slidell, has been destroyed in places. And we can’t yet tell if Slidell even exists anymore.

A 200-foot wide break in 17th Street Canal Levee is slowly flooding the entire city of New Orleans. Huge sand bags are being airlifted to try to stem the rush of water in that area. The expectations are that the water will not stop until it reaches lake level.

And now there's the looting and crime forcing National Guardsmen to divert their attention from saving lives. What a disgusting image to portray to the world in our darkest hour! I can vouch for 99% of the residents of New Orleans who are nothing like these criminals you are seeing on TV. Most of the New Orleanians I know got out of the city days ago. They are the ones who are displaced throughout the South, struggling to find ways to make ends meet, and uncertain if their homes or jobs will even exist when they are allowed to return home, which could be months from now. The rest of the country is starting to realize the extent of the damage and level of desperation in New Orleans. I am glad we are the focus of the nationwide media coverage, but I fear what may happen when America gets bored of this story. New Orleans needs us now, and it’s not going to be a quick recovery.

New Orleans, my hometown, is situated below sea level in a bowl created by the mouth of the River to its south and several large lakes to the north. The upswelling of these water bodies caused by winds and surge of Katrina has created a drainage pool covering hundreds of square miles in the city and surrounding areas. This water has nowhere to go, and will remain in the city indefinitely, with heat and humidity festering unsanitary conditions and disease for those who stayed behind as well as those venturing back to salvage whatever they have left.

The flood pumps were simply not strong enough to keep up with the brutality of this natural disaster. Some emergency management officials are reporting it may take months for the water to be drained out (against the force of gravity) and the drinking and bathing water to be restored to a state where it’s usable without being boiled first. Nevertheless, how can one boil water without power? The power infrastructure of the entire city needs to be rebuilt. Who knows how long this will take.

I would like to talk about the near and long term economic impacts of this catastrophe, but I feel like once I start, I will not be able to stop. How do you replace half a million jobs in an economy that has no infrastructure?

While I feel so far away and somewhat helpless, I have determined to do what I can to help the people of New Orleans in their time of need. I do not want to simply restore the city to the state it was in, rather I want to encourage its residents to build it to an even greater strength. May the anguish and loss they feel in their hearts today help to fuel the recovery and strengthen their resolve in the coming weeks. The human mind cannot fathom anything of this magnitude, but our collective human spirit can overcome even the unimaginable.

The people in New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast have endured so much in the past few days, and they will continue to be tested as the extent of the damage is realized and the rebuilding process begins. I want to help in some way, and while I am no civil engineer or disaster relief coordinator, I know there are ways we can all help, regardless of our skills or how far away we may be. Whether it’s helping people to understand the severity of the situation, provoking a debate over what can be done, or encouraging people to donate to disaster relief funds, I’m going to do whatever I can.

I ask you to pay attention to what is going on in New Orleans over the next few weeks. If you have any idea that may help the situation for so many people there, I encourage you to share it with me on this weblog. Many of you are so brilliant and accomplished in your respective occupations, and with your help, we can spark the recovery efforts in ways the people there have not thought of. Urgent times like these call for creative solutions.

Finally, I encourage you to make whatever monetary donations to the recovery efforts you feel comfortable giving. I will post the information of such agencies to this website as it becomes available. I know, however, that funds from private citizens will not be enough to compensate the reconstruction that is necessary. We need to also solicit corporate and federal funds however we can.

If any of you have ideas of how we can effectively raise resources and direct those resources to the agencies who are best able to provide the kind of help that is needed, please let me know. Those of you in New Orleans itself may be able to provide this info to all of us on the outside.

Many experts are already calling this the worst natural disaster in our nation’s history, yet it may still get much worse. Please do not turn your back on this catastrophe. The people of New Orleans are depending on us now.

Thank you.