Recall the images of anger, despair, fear, and violence that filled the television when, after the storm receded, the social problems of racism and economic inequality and a callous Republican-led government, like debris washed up on a beach, were laid bare for our nation and the world to see.
Now it is more than two years later, and the rebuilding process has been stalled. Working families still do not have homes. Maybe 30% of the city is up and running. How could we let this human tragedy recede from our memory so easily?
Reminding us and provoking us to get involved is a second, full-time job for activist and media specialist Katina Parker.
In a recent interview, she said that she gets up at four in the morning to work on a project she has been spearheading for the last few months, New Orleans: A Labor of Love. Parker's early morning gig, filled with endless fundraising, phone calls, and media work, is a campaign aimed at mobilizing 5,000 young people to volunteer for the rebuilding efforts in New Orleans.
Many residents of New Orleans feel abandoned. "Just within the last 6 months, I have seen the temperament of residents change from being hopeful and optimistic," Parker said. Now, she adds, "I think it really hit home for people that this is taking longer than it has any right to because of the hoops they have to jump through in order to get money from the various programs that are available."
Last August, on the second anniversary of the storm, in a staged public relations event, President Bush gave the keys for a newly rebuilt home to a New Orleans family.
"But you didn’t see a whole lot of what the rest of the city looks like," Parker noted. "A good portion of the city still needs to be rebuilt. Most houses literally look the same as they did a week or two after the water subsided. Only 30% of the city is up and running or back in residence."
Bush's response to the public outcry against his administration's failures to immediately and urgently bring aid to the victims of the storm has amounted to little more than staged PR events such as this.
People in the storied city have not been able to rely on the Bush administration, because of its ideologically driven penchant for privatization and idle government, to speed up the recovery process and to help them regain normalcy. According to Parker, the rebuilding process for many New Orleans residents has become a second full-time job.
"Folks go to work and they come back. They spend their evenings building. They spend their mornings building. They go to work and they come back, and they just keep doing it," Parker said.
It was this daily struggle that appears to have inspired Parker to build the New Orleans: Labor of Love campaign. "Katrina definitely has in many ways brought out the best in people, but it also has brought out the worst in people. It has been one of the most powerful examples of opportunism we have seen in a long time," she added.
Many charities and businesses have used the disaster to pad their general funds in some cases of the former, while many of the latter have profited from the tragedy without returning much to the people who live there.
But Parker is still hopeful that something good may come out of the situation. But it is going to take people power and commitment. "New Orleans could be a model for a different type of opportunism," she suggested.
"Instead of people who already have money making significantly more money, it could instead be that all of the unskilled population who are living in New Orleans could be acquiring new skills. People should be being trained as contractors, educators, and so forth. It is really an opportunity for folks there to come up – if things were structured that way. Right now they are not," she concluded.
It may seem like a small contribution, but for people like Mr. Gilbert, the result is life-changing.
In order to promote the campaign to get volunteers, Parker began to film some of the activities and post them to the Internet in a video podcast. The project quickly ballooned into a full-fledged documentary that lent its title to the campaign itself: New Orleans: A Labor of Love.
So if you have a moment to spare, check out the website for the campaign: www.nolaboroflove.com. Donate a little cash, a little time. Let your friends know about it. Make a commitment to get involved. Put your church, your college sorority, or your organization in touch with Parker's efforts.
It is time to stop and take action to help save a city that is not only a landmark in our national memory and a wound in our collective conscience but also a home for so many families trying to make it another day.
Maybe what Parker is trying to do is the real point behind Mother Nature's message, warning us to take care of each other.
--Joel Wendland can be reached at email@example.com