September 6, 2005
I just got back from a trip to Houston with former Presidents Clinton and Bush. And as we wandered through the crowd, we heard in very intimate terms the heart-wrenching stories that all of us have witnessed from a distance over the past several days: mothers separated from babies, adults mourning the loss of elderly parents, descriptions of the heat and filth and fear of the Superdome and the Convention Center. There was an overriding sense of relief, for the officials in Houston have done an outstanding job of creating a clean and stable place for these families in the short-term. But a conversation I had with one woman captured the realities that are settling into these families as they face the future.
She told me "We had nothing before the hurricane. Now we got less than nothing."
We had nothing before the hurricane. Now we got less than nothing.
In the coming weeks, as the images of the immediate crisis fade and this chamber becomes consumed with other matters, we will be hearing a lot about lessons learned and steps to be taken. I will be among those voices calling for action.
In the most immediate term, we will have to assure that the efforts at evacuating families from the affected states proceeds - that these Americans are fed, clothed, housed, and provided with the immediate care and medicine that they need. We're going to have to make sure that we cut through red tape. I can say from personal experience how frustrating, how unconscionable it is, that it has been so difficult to get medical supplies to those in need quickly enough. We should make certain that any impediments that may continue to exist in preventing relief efforts from moving rapidly are eliminated.
Once we stabilize the situation, this country will face an enormous challenge in providing stability for displaced families over the months and years that it will take to rebuild. Already, the state of Illinois has committed to accepting 10,000 families that are displaced. There are stories in Illinois as there are everywhere of churches, mosques, synagogues and individual families welcoming people with open arms and no strings attached. Indeed, if there's any bright light that has come out of this disaster, it's the degree to which ordinary Americans have responded with speed and determination even as their government has responded with unconscionable ineptitude.
Which brings me to the next point. Once the situation is stable, once families are settled - at least for the short term - once children are reunited with their parents and enrolled in schools and the wounds have healed, we're gonna have to do some hard thinking about how we could have failed our fellow citizens so badly, and how we will prevent such a failure from ever occurring again.
It is not politics to insist that we have an independent commission to examine these issues. Indeed, one of the heartening things about this crisis has been the degree to which the outrage has come from across the political spectrum; across races; across incomes. The degree to which the American people sense that we can and must do better, and a recognition that if we cannot cope with a crisis that has been predicted for decades - a crisis in which we're given four or five days notice - how can we ever hope to respond to a serious terrorist attack in a major American city in which there is no notice, and in which the death toll and panic and disruptions may be far greater?
Which brings me to my final point. There's been much attention in the press about the fact that those who were left behind in New Orleans were disproportionately poor and African American. I've said publicly that I do not subscribe to the notion that the painfully slow response of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security was racially-based. The ineptitude was colorblind.
But what must be said is that whoever was in charge of planning and preparing for the worst case scenario appeared to assume that every American has the capacity to load up their family in an SUV, fill it up with $100 worth of gasoline, stick some bottled water in the trunk, and use a credit card to check in to a hotel on safe ground. I see no evidence of active malice, but I see a continuation of passive indifference on the part of our government towards the least of these.
And so I hope that out of this crisis we all begin to reflect - Democrat and Republican - on not only our individual responsibilities to ourselves and our families, but to our mutual responsibilities to our fellow Americans. I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren't just abandoned during the Hurricane. They were abandoned long ago - to murder and mayhem in their streets; to substandard schools; to dilapidated housing; to inadequate health care; to a pervasive sense of hopelessness.
That is the deeper shame of this past week - that it has taken a crisis like this one to awaken us to the great divide that continues to fester in our midst. That's what all Americans are truly ashamed about, and the fact that we're ashamed about it is a good sign. The fact that all of us - black, white, rich, poor, Republican, Democrat - don't like to see such a reflection of this country we love, tells me that the American people have better instincts and a broader heart than our current politics would indicate.
We had nothing before the Hurricane. Now we have even less.
I hope that we all take the time to ponder the truth of that message.