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The suffering brought by Hurricane Katrina

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Brace yourselves, Montanans. Between today and Sunday, you are going to be inundated with images of an American calamity. Maybe you already have been. You will be bombarded with pictures and words describing the destruction caused by the forces of nature and the follies of mankind. You will be reminded repeatedly of how the government failed at every level, how the best and the worst of humanity rose to the surface and how an entire American city was nearly lost.

And it will all be true.

Sunday, Aug. 29, 2010, marks the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. It is a day forever etched on the psychological calendar of an entire region within the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. It’s also been written onto a nation’s calendar.

Contrary to popular belief, Katrina missed New Orleans, although the power of her winds and tidal surges ripped holes in the city’s floodwalls, causing them to breach and flooding 80 percent of the city. But even as it missed the city with a direct hit, it was enough to wreak havoc on entire neighborhoods, entire families and an entire way of life.

Six months before Katrina hit, I left New Orleans to work for a newspaper in Lake County, Ind. What I saw before I left would become a reflection of what I would find when I returned. Now, as the nation prepares to recognize and reflect on what happened five years ago, I, too, take pause in wondering if the true and real impact of Katrina will ever be known.

Some say New Orleans’ best days are ahead of it. It has a new mayor. Its professional football team is the defending Super Bowl champion. But New Orleans could actually be headed on its own self-destructive path, not because of what Katrina did but what the others have attempted to do, through the most nefarious of means, to a city that once boasted a unique culture and a diversity of people.

Ever since Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the greatest disaster has been a man-made one, where powerful and politically heeled individuals have attempted to redraw the demographics of an entire city. They’ve done it mostly through what has become known as “shrinking the footprint,” essentially discouraging rebuilding certain parts of the city that were heavily damaged, not through any fault of their own but because of the U.S. government’s failed infrastructure.

Remember, Katrina missed New Orleans. The levees failed. The criminals who looted and the police officers charged with murdering innocent people didn’t do it because of Katrina. They did it because they chose to do it. Katrina only presented the opportunity.

If any of this doesn’t resonate with Montanans, maybe this will. Imagine the worst wildfire to ever hit Northwestern Montana striking a blow in the middle of the night, after lightning strikes at the farthest most points on both ends of Lake County. The fires wipe out pretty much the entire region, from Polson to Arlee, with only a few places spared in between. 

Then imagine someone arbitrarily deciding that only Polson and Pablo should be rebuilt. If you’re Ronan, Charlo, St. Ignatius or Arlee, you start to feel like some New Orleanians.

There are people in New Orleans who no longer feel wanted in the place they’ve always called home. Attempts to condemn their neighborhoods, deny them equal opportunities in jobs, housing and education, as well the opportunity to return and rebuild, have all fostered a hostile and hateful climate. All of a sudden, the natives of that reservation are no longer welcome in their own territory.

New Orleans and the state of Louisiana both made major mistakes after Katrina. 

In New Orleans, they held Mardi Gras six months after the storm, claiming the economy needed to be jump-started. It didn’t matter that the parades and their floats trampled the sacred grounds of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the cavernous place where people died on national television. 

That location is not that far from the Lower Ninth Ward, where people also died and corpses remained stacked inside of well-built, mostly paid-for homes washed aside by the bomb-like forces of raging water.

As for Louisiana, one wonders if Napoleon Bonaparte didn’t get the best of the United States. The state’s major rebuilding apparatus, known as Road Home, has turned into the road best not traveled, as billions of taxpayer recovery dollars have been wasted, affecting mostly the citizens of New Orleans who could least afford it.

Most Americans wish New Orleans well. But all the wishing in the worlds does no good if those in key positions attempt to do damage to others with immunity. 

A hurricane didn’t hit and nearly destroy New Orleans five years ago. But a disdain for their fellow human beings will.

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