The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the southeastern United States cut two ways. It rallied Americans in showings of compassion and national unity rivaling, if not surpassing, those following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Yet it also exposed the country’s lingering racial divide and the disparity between the rich and poor.
Katrina made landfall Aug. 29 as a Category 4 storm with winds of 140 miles per hour. The worst of the storm appeared at first to spare the historic city of New Orleans, which sits on ground below sea level, but on Aug. 30 breaches in the levee system on the Lake Pontchartrain side of New Orleans left 80 percent of the city underwater.
The mayor of New Orleans ordered a mandatory evacuation, but many residents stayed behind. Most were poor and lacked transportation. Critics argued the federal government took too long to mobilize aid, causing thousands of storm victims to languish for days without food, water and other necessities. Many suggested the response would have been quicker if the majority of stranded victims had been affluent and white instead of predominantly black and poor.
Americans responded with a record outpouring of support. Within days, charitable organizations collected more than half a billion dollars, with gifts coming in at a faster rate than the 10 days following the 2001 terrorist attacks or the tsunamis in South Asia.
Thousands of displaced persons found refuge in emergency shelters, including many in churches. Congregations as far away as Texas and Tennessee served as American Red Cross shelters, and some church members opened their homes to victims.
“My heart has been warmed this week as I have seen our church volunteering and giving in so many ways,” said Paula Settle, a staff member at Central Baptist Church Bearden in Knoxville, Tenn. “We have people sorting clothes, serving food, emptying trash and doing things that
I am sure they have never done before with this type of clientele.”
The Southern Baptist Convention, the second-largest religious organization in the U.S., behind Roman Catholics, coordinated a record 5,000 relief volunteers from 33 Baptist state conventions, serving more than 750,000 meals prepared by 56 mobile kitchens.
Giving to Southern Baptist relief efforts for Katrina topped $2 million. One state convention, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, pledged another $1 million.
Another major Baptist group, American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., developed a Katrina Response page on a Web site and donated relief funds through One Great Hour of Sharing.
The New York Times described it as “the greatest mobilization of churches” in memory.
The National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., the largest African-American Baptist group, designated the first three Sundays of September as “Katrina Relief Sundays” to collect offerings in churches. The convention also devoted pages on its Web site to helping displaced persons contact family members and matching housing needs with possibilities.
Yet media coverage of the disaster also drew new attention to the plight of millions of Americans who live in poverty, a reality that critics charge has been too long ignored.
Democratic National Committee head Howard Dean told the 3.5-million-member National Baptist Convention of America that race played a factor in the death toll from Hurricane Katrina.
“As survivors are evacuated, order is restored, the water slowly begins to recede, and we sort through the rubble, we must also begin to come to terms with the ugly truth that skin color, age and economics played a deadly role in who survived and who did not,” Dean, the former governor of Vermont who ran for president in 2004, said.
William J. Shaw, president of the 7.5-million-member National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., criticized “troubling and troublesome injustices that seem to be taken for granted by public officials at the highest levels of our national government.”
“We hold national leaders accountable for the preventable consequences of the Hurricane Katrina disaster,” Shaw said. “The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina happened on this administration’s watch. Accountability for them all must be required.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.