DID WE LEARN?
One of the most memorable elements in the aftermath was the problems with communications. Phone services—both land and cellular—were inoperable. The lack of electrical power in many areas rendered e-mail useless. Postal service in large areas was disrupted for many months. Financial records and vital documents were lost, damaged or destroyed. Many Louisiana residents “reinvented” their lives and businesses—and it was a very painful process. One wonders if government agencies, communication companies and the U.S. Postal Service have put new procedures in place to more rapidly restore our ability to communicate when the next major disaster hits.
In a two-week span, a third of the economy in Louisiana was knocked out of commission. No one knew how long it would take to build back, but the scattering of the “building blocks” was a major problem. The labor force of South Louisiana was dispersed across the nation. Bringing those workers back was a huge challenge due to the lack of housing. Businesses are tied to the solvency of each other. Each business that failed in the aftermath of the storms became a weight dragging down others. Perhaps the single element most responsible for the eventual restoration of much of the economy was the immense demand for goods and services wrought by the destruction of the storms. Private donations, public funding and insurance payments brought a massive infusion of dollars into Louisiana—dollars that fueled growth in government tax revenues and in the massive spending that followed. But those one-time revenue flows are declining now, and our economy must stand on its own feet if growth is to continue. One wonders if businesses and state and local governments have come to that realization.
Perhaps the most memorable element of the Katrina/Rita experience was the exposition of leadership on all levels in the immediate aftermath. On the positive end, the heroic efforts of the military and many of the first responders was an amazing story in and of itself. How can anyone forget those brave Coast Guard personnel flying mission after mission, rescuing flood victims and saving lives? No one should ever forget the conversion of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on the LSU-Baton Rouge Campus into the largest non-military field hospital in recent times. Volunteers responded and saved lives almost routinely.
Governmental leadership was another matter. The finger pointing among federal, state and local agencies and offices should never happen again in any calamity. Turf protection, politics and egos have no place in the struggle to save lives and property. Too much of the governmental antics after the storms were reminiscent of the last lines of Matthew Arnold’s poem, Dover Beach:
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Katrina and Rita will not leave our memories soon, nor should they. They should make us continue to look at our ability to respond to every aspect of a major crisis more competently and efficiently in the future. They should make us understand that folks come first when disaster strikes and politics are best served in a disaster by serving the people best.
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