As far as I can figure, there are four indelible dates in American history. Four dates that every American knows or should know. Four dates that stand alone, needing no further description or explanation for people to know what happened. Four dates that defined generations and shaped our nation.
July 4, 1776.
December 7, 1941.
November 22, 1963.
September 11, 2001.
August 29, 2005, will likely never stand along with those dates. Instead, it will join April 14, 1865 (Abraham Lincoln assassinated), October 29, 1929 (start of the Great Depression), April 4, 1968 (Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated) and July 20, 1969 (Apollo 11 moon landing), as dates that mark monumental moments in our history, but are not generally distinguished on their own. August 29, 2005, of course, was the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast. What happened in the next several days and weeks certainly marked a profound, albeit sad, transition in our history. The destruction was devastating. The loss unbearable. The confusion and missteps by leaders at the local, state and federal level unfathomable.
One year later, people continue to try and lay blame for what happened after Katrina, especially in New Orleans. One year later, I think it's long past time to stop playing the blame game and just get things fixed. The fact of the matter is that at this point, the blame does not matter. Let's just agree that everyone in charge, or who was supposed to be in charge, screwed up like no one has screwed up before. Local leaders should have heeded warnings and evacuated earlier. State leaders should have asked for help sooner. Federal leaders should have been ready and more aware of what was going on. Agreed?
One year later, hundreds of thousands of people along the Gulf Coast are still left with nothing and looking for answers and solutions. It's still hard for me to believe that in the most powerful, wealthiest nation in the world, so many of our fellow Americans are still without homes, not knowing what the future will hold.
Through all of this, I don't know if there's a more interesting character than New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. At various times, he has been admirable and infuriating. Love him or hate him, for better or worse, for good or bad, Nagin is a passionate voice for his constituents. Sometimes, though, that voice says things that rile people up. Perhaps Nagin's most famous moment was his interview on a New Orleans radio station in the days just after Katrina when, choking back tears, he used some very strong language to plead for help.
I may not agree with Nagin's politics, but I have to at least respect his frankness.
During a recent interview with CBS' 60 Minutes, Nagin again rankled observers. When asked by a reporter why debris still littered the ravaged city, Nagin said, "You guys in New York can't get a hole in the ground fixed, and it's five years later. So let's be fair." It wasn't long before the quip made headlines for being insensitive to the victims of September 11, 2001. Granted, Nagin may not win any awards for being a warm, cudly guy. But was his statement really wrong?
I definitely don't think Nagin was trying to minimize what happened at the World Trade Center. It would be tough for anyone to do that. But his point is legitimate. The World Trade Center covered 16 acres of lower Manhattan. The collapse of the two towers and destruction of six other buildings resulted in 1.8 million tons of debris. The removal took more than eight months, using 3,000 workers working 3.1 million man-hours at a cost of $650 million. Now extrapolate that to a city with more than 180 square miles of land and thousands of buildings damaged or destroyed. Nagin's right. If it's taken five years to get the World Trade Center back to being a clean construction site, how long will it take to rebuild most of a major city? And that's not even counting the efforts along the rest of the Gulf Coast, where countless towns and cities were literally wiped off the map.
As we stop to commemorate the horrible events from a year ago, we must both look back and look ahead. The bungling of Katrina's aftermath is a priceless lesson America must never repeat. And for that reason, we cannot forget what happened. But at the same time, we must not dwell on what happened. If we do, the recovery and rebirth of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast will drag on and on.
History is something we must learn from. It is not a place where we can afford to live.