When George W Bush finally arrived in Jackson Square in New Orleans to offer comfort and announce his Government’s response a lot of people (including me) thought it was too little and too late. This week I am in New Orleans and have re-visited that speech and am offering another one that might have been given by the President of the USA.
While the streets and wards are covered in debris and refugees have fled to all parts of this country -there is nothing empty about New Orleans. NOLA is filled with a big heart.
This is a town where lives are changed every day by human, natural and supernatural energies. However, Katrina did not come like a thief in the night she announced her coming on every meteorological device days earlier, in the reports of problems with the engineering of the levee for years and in the ecology of the swamps for decades. Katrina was a perfect storm in every sense of the word – a howling, rolling merciless force of nature ready to bring a nation to its knees.
As in centuries past, bodies and parts of bodies floated in the streets. The cries for food and water only just soothed by the Coast Guard, rescuing and offering comfort unsurpassed by any other emergency service or organised effort. Neighbours helping neighbours, strangers seeking shelter huddled together in the Superdome, looking lost together and calling on the heavenly and earthly powers to come and save them.
This is a call to all of us – it is a wake up call – we need to wake up and understand the people of the Cresent City are the canaries in the coal mine. They are the ones who have borne the brunt of systemic failure, climate change and human pride. The systems that have failed are more than an engineers error – they are serial and nearly a generation old. We didn’t listen, we weren’t paying attention and were arrogant enough to think we knew what was best and the electoral cycle was the only time frame to worry about. We didn’t pay attention to the meteorologists, the hydrologists, the geographers and planners. We missed all the cues and didn’t learn from the rehearsals provided by the elements and engineering.
We didn’t plan for what was inevitable. No amount of money will replace personal treasures, homes and most especially loved ones lost. No amount of government assistance now will replace the lack of courageous and informed decision-making past. No about of recovery and rebuilding will heal those who are traumatised forever. This is our quest to be in this mess together. As your President I call on your forgiveness of our common failure and sweep aside this horror, to rise up together in a spirit of compassion, so we can all recover and rebuild.
I will commit to rebuilding trust, confidence and quality in decision-making. I will build on the spirit of resilience and goodwill of the people of New Orleans. I will call on Congress to gift the necessary funds to rebuild the infrastructure, document the lessons and create a new generation of leaders to protect and defend New Orleans to meet the challenges ahead in partnership with the great States of Louisiana, Mississippi and all across the Gulf and indeed our whole great nation – because the lessons from this disaster are ones we need to apply as we plan and prepare for future disasters. I invite all the volunteers and first responders to see themselves as saints marching in to New Orleans.
Like a tree planted by the waterside, New Orleans will not be moved, and as fellow Americans we will not be moved in our mission to help you come home, and be restored to fullest of health. I am calling on those with the skills, the heart, the networks and ideas to come together in New Orleans and to stay as this recover is going to take decades. The newcomers will be the brain gain to the City and bring hard work, creativity and a festival spirit to their endeavours. We are a nation of entrepreneurs and there has never been a better time to call on that mentality and endurance to help get New Orleans back on its feet. I want us to parade together with brass bands blazing into a future where New Orleans is making its best music and magic.
I call upon all the great spirits of New Orleans – ones past and present to energise us when we are feeling low and to help us celebrate when we recover.