A certain temptation exists to draw parallels between Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy and there is definitely some justice to this: A hurricane hits a major population center and after an initial sigh of relief, the light of day reveals just how much carnage has been left in the storm’s wake.
But on other levels, the storms are very different. Katrina hit in 2005, a year after George W. Bush had been reelected to a second term in office. Sandy hit less than two weeks before a presidential election. You think Bush would have been so slow to react if his hide had been on the line?
Secondly, although Washington D.C. is the home to the White House and loads of other government buildings, everyone knows that New York City is America’s first city; it functions in the same iconic way Paris does for France or London for the U.K. A submerged New York sends somewhat the same message to the world that Nazi flags did when they flew over Paris and Hitler was bombing London. Okay, of course that’s a pretty far-flung analogy (and I hate WW2 analogies anyways), but you get the idea: to the rest of the world it’s a giant SOS sign.
Now I don’t want to suggest either that George Bush would have done a good job with the aftermath of Katrina if he had been facing reelection or that Barack Obama would be doing a poor job if he were faced with a situation in another less affluent part of the country.
But in my mind, I can’t help but think that this moment has very little to do with the lessons learned from Katrina but rather it has considerably more to do with the timing and location.
Have we learned anything from Katrina? Well, I hope so. I don’t think we’ll know the answer until some time from now, possibly weeks or months or maybe even more than a year from now. I can’t remember who said this in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (probably more than one person, I imagine), but that was a moment for us as Americans to reconsider the situation of the poor in our country, it was a moment for us to decide what sort of country we wanted to be. Did we feel comfortable as a country with abandoning the poor in the face of a natural disaster? If you don’t remember the horror of the days following the Hurricane, might I recommend a quick Google search for Hurricane Katrina Superdome. Better yet, Google search images.
I credit the events of Katrina with forcing me to finally abandon my hold on a political philosophy that I was already keeping at arm’s length. I was still a Republican, but more concerned with the environment than big business, and more worried about justifying our intervention in Iraq than the “strategic advantages” there were to being in the region or the oil resources we could now access.
While I was sitting in my classroom with a bunch of other privileged white kids in the Midwest, we saw a black woman on CNN crying, distraught at “raper men” in the Superdome. My classmates and my government teacher laughed. It was one of those moments that look insignificant on the surface, but seven years later, it’s still ingrained in my mind, it’s still forming me.
And so now as I wonder if we’ve learned our lessons, if we’ve taken a good hard look at ourselves as a nation I realize that what we’re seeing unfold in New York and New Jersey has remarkably little to do with what happened in Louisiana and Mississippi back in 2005.
My heart and hopes go to all of those affected by Sandy in solidarity – in solidarity with those in New Orleans, as well – and everyone in Detroit, Philadelphia, and all those other corners where you might not recognize the street corner for the United States or any other western country.
Note: For an informative and succinct overview of the days following Katrina, I would highly recommend this account from a photographer present at the Convention Center and the Superdome.