Volume 18 Number 6
Repairing the Levees of Trust
01 December 2005

The hurricane and its horrifying aftermath may prove to be the tipping point that causes Americans to rethink our values, priorities and lifestyles.

IT WILL TAKE more than steel and concrete to repair the festering wounds revealed by Hurricane Katrina's onslaught on New Orleans. The ferocious power of wind and water combined to expose the reality of a community-and a nation-deeply divided by class and race.

But the hurricane and its horrifying aftermath may prove to be the tipping point that causes Americans to rethink our values, priorities and lifestyles. Hurricane Rita, following closely on the heels of Katrina and wreaking further havoc on the Gulf coast, underscored the need for reflection on these matters. Although much of the media commentary focused on who should take the political heat for the inadequate response to New Orlean's desperate plight, thoughtful observers looked more deeply into what the disaster revealed about the fault lines in our national community.

Four years after 9/11, America is faced with a very different challenge. The attacks were a traumatic experience, but it did not fundamentally change America: at least it did not change the way most of us live and it did not shift our personal priorities very much. The attacks exploited the rage at US foreign policy and resentment against Western modernity; they were also the result of conflict within the Middle East far away from American soil.

But Katrina revealed all too clearly the chasm within America itself. Twenty-eight per cent of the population of New Orleans live below the poverty level. One hundred and twenty thousand people exist on incomes of less than $8,000. Eighty per cent of the poor are black. Of course, the hurricane was overwhelming in its impact and no respecter of race: many poor whites also suffered hugely. Yet, in a national poll, 70 per cent of African Americans said they felt that help would have come faster to an area with a white majority.

Subsidy from poor
Louisiana politics have a well-earned reputation for corruption and incompetence and this may have been a factor in the failures. But New Orleans is a dramatic reflection of trends in the country as a whole: under-investment in vital infrastructure, over-greedy development, and a growing disparity of wealth and access to vital services. The growing gulf between rich and poor is particularly concerning. My hometown of Richmond, Virginia, contains one of the wealthiest census tracts in the US. Within walking distance lie neighbourhoods with some of the lowest incomes in the nation. In New York, the poorest one fifth of Manhattan residents earn two cents for every dollar that goes to the richest one fifth.

Robert Reich, the former US Secretary of Labor, writes that across the nation the 'old workforce compact is in shreds'. Wages are stagnant; everyone is putting in more hours simply to stay afloat. Life is toughest for the working poor, who, as Barbara Ehrenreich points out in Nickle and Dimed: on (not) getting by in America, are the nation's true philanthropists: they subsidize a comfortable lifestyle for the rest of us.

The international response was remarkable. But, as the poor, the elderly, the young and the disabled struggled to survive the ravages of Katrina, the world asked how the most powerful country could leave so many of its most vulnerable citizens so unprotected.

Yet, Americans are hugely generous, highly practical people. A billion dollars in donations have poured in to aid the hurricane victims. Towns and cities across the country opened their hearts and their doors. More than 140,000 evacuees have been invited to individual homes. We have been stirred by stories of nurses working ventilators by hand to keep desperately ill patients alive. We have seen heroic feats of rescue and simple acts of kindness. While politicians argued, ordinary citizens took action. Five hundred Arkansas Baptists served 400,000 hot meals in the days after the storm.

Hard questions
Americans know as they look at the heartbreak on their television screens that something is deeply wrong. They understand that sustaining a diverse national community demands shared risk and sacrifice. They are prepared to pay the cost if our leaders have the courage to ask. Or, as The New York Times editorialized, 'If the president will not call upon us to make sacrifices, perhaps we should call upon ourselves.'

The human tragedy of New Orleans challenges us to consider our country's still unfulfilled commitment to the proposition that all people are created equal. Broken promises over the decades have breached the levees of trust. None of us is responsible for the wounds of the past but we are all responsible for the acts of repair.

Rather than imitate our politicians in passing the buck, each one of us can ask what we might do to make a difference, starting in our own homes, neighbourhoods, workplaces and communities. Initiatives of Change, through its programme of Hope in the Cities, has promoted dialogue and citizen action by asking questions that we may prefer to leave unspoken, and addressing topics we fear to put on the table. Every community in America must learn to ask itself hard questions. Without blame, but with shared responsibility, we can move forward together towards solutions.

Rob Corcoran is US Director of Hope in the Cities

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