By: Marc H. Morial
National Urban League
A devastating path of death and destruction. Results much worse than expected. A national catastrophe. Our tsunami.
Even these terrible words, spoken by news reporters on the scene and local and state officials in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, don't do justice to the fury of nature that has ravaged the coastal and inland regions of these three states.
All or significant sections of Mobile, Alabama, New Orleans, Biloxi, Mississippi and their surrounding areas are inundated with many feet of water—all of it contaminated with the detritus of the hurricane, and, in some places, electrified by downed but still live power lines.
As this column is being written late Tuesday afternoon, officials say that many residents remain trapped in their homes by the flood waters, with some pushed by still-rising water up to their homes' attics, or even onto their homes' roofs.
The death toll is high—and bound to climb, given that officials have yet to reach many neighborhoods and subdivisions and many rural areas of the coastal region.
The grim, chilling words Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco tersely spoke in the morning were repeated across the region throughout the day: "Search and rescue missions are still being conducted."
Later in the day two levees in New Orleans built to hold back floods broke, allowing more waters to enter the city, which in places is ten feet below sea level.
This forced city officials to hurriedly organize an evacuation of tens of thousands of people who had fled to the Superdome and other city rescue centers before Hurricane Katrina hit.
Everywhere across the coastal region, power and telephone service remain disrupted, safe drinking water is in scarce supply, and the plight of survivors—many of them now without shelter, new clothing, or food—grows increasingly desperate. And the breaking of the physical bonds which have defined life in the region have apparently led a few to break the bonds which tie human beings to each other and loot stores and homes.
The words Governor Blanco spoke later in the day, referring to the situation in New Orleans itself, could stand for the region as a whole, even as officials everywhere struggle to cope with this extraordinary calamity:
"The situation is untenable," she said. "It's just heartbreaking."
One meaning of her words is that, as shocked as we are by the wreckage that we see now, we can be certain that worse is yet to come—when the flood waters recede and a more accurate number of the dead and missing can be calculated; and a more accurate number of those who have lost everything can be calculated; and, most of all, when we can get a clearer picture of the havoc the poor will endure for some time.
Although I now work hundreds of miles away from New Orleans, the city I grew up in and which I served as Mayor for two terms, my heart was breaking as, via television, I watched its people and neighborhoods and streets and byways being pummeled and submerged by this furious, unrelenting storm.
And I felt the same sense of loss and calamity as reports and pictures came in from Mobile and the coastal and inland counties of Mississippi, where the loss of life has apparently been the greatest.
Biloxi city officials said they expect the death toll "to be in the hundreds." Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway put it in plain, stark terms to the local newspaper: "This is our tsunami."
Certainly what Hurricane Katrina has wrought has evoked for many the same sense of grief and devastation that the South Asian tsunami provoked.
And our response must be just as swift and compassionate.
All Americans must do what they can to help the governmental and private relief agencies hard at work bring aid and comfort to these stricken regions and these stricken people. We must all respond to the appeals from the proper authorities and the reputable organizations for food, clothing and money. Time is of the essence. One need only look at the seemingly unending, terrible pictures that fill our television screens and newspapers now to see, as Governor Blanco said, "The situation is untenable. It's just heartbreaking."
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