The 9/11 attacks were horrific, wrenching for the global community that witnessed them, devastating for those who lost loved ones and friends. But for most in New York City, life quickly resumed, although with an overlay of loss and fear. Although the deaths in New Orleans were fewer, most of the city is now largely a wasteland. Its residents are exiled from their homes, often losing everything they had. Its an open question whether most will ever be able to return to resume their work, their lives, and their contributions to a culture thats given so much to the world. To rebuild New Orleans so it becomes more than just a raunchier Disneyland with better music is an undertaking unlike any our nation has ever undertaken.
9/11, we were told, required Americans to place unprecedented trust in their president and his advisors, and to scrap longstanding rules of international law and domestic liberties. It justified a preemptive war against Iraq and Bushs reelection, despite all his failures. Of course it might never have occurred if the US hadnt supported bin Laden to begin with, or if our policies hadnt so embittered the Islamic world that a small number of men were willing to murder thousands of innocent people. But wed all agree the attacks had a profound global impact.
So what are the lessons of New Orleans? We may call hurricanes acts of God, but Katrina was a level 1 storm, the lowest, until blistering temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico supercharged it to level 5. The storms virulence was likely related to global climate warming, much like the recent forest fires that ravaged Southern California, floods that covered much of Bangladesh, and European heat waves that killed 35,000 people two summers ago. Ironically, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour played a key role, as an energy lobbyist, in convincing the Bush administration to break its campaign promise to support limits on the carbon dioxide emissions that fuel global warming.
Finally, this catastrophe built on the slow-burn disaster thats been hitting Americas poorest communities for decades. The wealthy and comfortable could evacuate New Orleans and did, though their lives were severely disrupted. But in one of the nations poorest cities, vast numbers of citizens had nowhere to go, no transportation or money with which to leave, and no friends or relatives with extra space to house them. They are the people left desperately trying to get out, while the helicopters and resources of a third of the Louisiana National Guard are deployed in Iraq. And they will be the ones most damaged and most forgotten when the floodwaters eventually recede.
Were told we had to change in the wake of 9/11 or face future terrorist attacks. I suspect there will still be more attacks on American soil, following London and Madrid, and that our Iraqi invasion makes this far more likely. But its also probable that unless we change, New Orleans will not be the last of Americas great cities to collapse in desperation and ruin. Immediate relief efforts are critical, but we also need to address root crises: global warming, runaway development, deterioration of critical infrastructure, and a malign neglect that leaves more and more Americans poor and desperate.
The development patterns that destroyed Louisiana wetlands are being repeated throughout America, with the support of an administration intent on removing all limits on private economic activity. The aging levees are part of a deteriorating national infrastructure that will take billions of dollars to address. The poverty that leaves people helpless to respond to disasters of whatever kind continues to grow, accelerated by government policies that transfer resources away from the poorest.
9/11 may have indeed changed our world forever, though the brief window of real discussion it fostered quickly closed, and we were left with false myths about how the only way to view the situation was as a war between ultimate good and ultimate evil. We now have a chance to heed the lessons of New Orleans and Katrina, with consequences potentially far worse than 9/11 if we dont. We can start conversations, in every corner of our country, about the disasters lessons and causes, and how to move forward in a way that honors the exiled and addresses the disasters complex roots. We can call for accountability, from our media and political leaders. We can treat this tragedy as a call to commitment in a way that too few of us did after 9/11. Its up to us how we respond to the power of its warning.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of fall 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association, and of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See http://www.paulloeb.org