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.