As Hurricane Season Begins, 2005 Damage Demands Attention

The June 1 start of the hurricane season is upon us, but in reality the 2005 hurricane season isn’t over. And it won’t be until our nation has made a real commitment to the restoration of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast from the devastation wrought by Katrina and Rita. As the arguments continue as to how the flooding happened, how the evacuation became a disaster in itself, how New Orleans should be rebuilt and how the area economy can be revived — one can sense the nation’s eyes glazing over. What was clearly once perceived as a national debacle is receding into a merely regional problem.

This sinking feeling of abandonment was the inspiration for organizing Women of the Storm at the beginning of this year. A group of New Orleans and Gulf Coast women of widely diverse backgrounds banded together to save their home. These women understood a simple truth: seeing is believing, and hopefully, acting. They have begun a campaign to get every member of Congress to come to New Orleans and southern Louisiana to witness the impact of Katrina personally. They hope that a firsthand view will lead to a commitment to stay the course for the rebuilding of New Orleans and its levees, as well as the rest of the Gulf Coast.

The National Council of Jewish Women became one of four national women’s organizations to sign on to help with this effort. With members in New Orleans since 1897, we have a long involvement with that extraordinary city. When Women of the Storm asked us for help, we pledged it. Probably millions of Americans have visited New Orleans to enjoy its unique culture and hospitality. It is time to return the favor.

It is true that Katrina’s wrath can be summarized in statistics. For example, in southern Louisiana, 780,000 residents were displaced. At least 123,000 homes and 82,000 rental properties suffered major or severe damage. More than 18,000 businesses were destroyed. The insured losses totaled $25 billion. Those facts are just a start.

But statistics just don’t do it for grasping the magnitude of Katrina. You can’t describe the Grand Canyon using just statistics. You can’t even capture why it is “grand” with just pictures. Neither can you convey the utter catastrophe of Katrina on a page or a screen. That became clear to me on a visit more than eight months after the hurricane as my NCJW guides drove me through block after block, mile after mile of devastated neighborhoods.

The generosity of volunteers and contributors has been gratifying. But private efforts, while lending a much-needed human face to relief and rebuilding, can only go so far. It is imperative that the collective will of the nation be put to the wheel in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. That can only come through the commitment of our federal government, authorized by Congress. And that congressional commitment is unlikely to be forthcoming unless members of Congress see for themselves and fully grasp what has happened and what is at stake.

Women of the Storm got national attention this spring for its campaign to bring Congress to New Orleans. Incredibly, the senators of 21 states have still not made it to the Gulf Coast, and 19 states have no representatives on the list of those witnessing Katrina’s aftermath. Of these, seven states have no members of Congress at all who can say they were there. In an age of congressional junkets to the far corners of the globe, this is a disgraceful record.

So by all means, go to the Gulf Coast and pitch in if you can. Give money if you can. But first, pick up the phone and call your members of Congress. Ask them if they have been to Louisiana, and if they haven’t, ask them why not. Or go online and send them an e-mail from www.ncjw.org to urge them to go. The victims of Katrina and Rita need more than a perfunctory vote for relief — they need a passionate commitment to restore their cities and towns, their neighborhoods and their lives.

Sammie Moshenberg is director of Washington operations for the National Council of Jewish Women.

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