I arrived in the faith-based advocacy community in Washington, D.C. fresh out of divinity school. I had moved to Washington to take an internship in the Public Life and Social Policy Office of the United Church of Christ -- a public policy ministry that I was excited to join after three years of study and preparation. I had been told that I would be working on issues of domestic poverty and economic justice. My first day in the office was August 29, 2005.
The first day of a new job is always nerve-wracking, but this day was also tinged with the collective sadness of watching a tragedy unfold. The 24-hour news cycle blared the news of recent and impending hurricane landfalls and of inadequate evacuation plans. I remember sitting with my new colleagues that morning discussing the domestic poverty policy agenda for the coming session of Congress, when Hurricane Katrina came up. In that Monday morning meeting, a collective intake of breath seemed to still the room as we all contemplated what was happening at that very moment.
My Presbyterian colleague, in whose chair I sit today, observed that it was the poor who were being left behind to weather the storm. As Hurricane Katrina approached New Orleans, the residents who could, fled, with good reason. Those who owned vehicles jammed the northbound highways, while those without means were left to fend for themselves as a storm of epic proportions bore down on their city.
The evacuation orders had come too late and that morning, there was no time left to escape -- one of the levies was already breached and by 9 a.m., the Lower Ninth Ward was under eight feet of water.
Of course, as we contemplated a natural disaster that morning, we had no idea of the human tragedy that was yet to unfold. We did not know how severely the levies would fail, that water would rise to cover the rooftops of houses, that fellow Louisianans would reject at gunpoint their neighbors as they tried to escape the devastated city, or that thousands would be stranded in trees and buildings or trapped for days without food or water in the Convention Center and the Superdome. We did not know that fear and racism would become the ruling principles in the days to come. We could not yet imagine just how woefully inadequate the city's evacuation and disaster-response plans would prove to be.
Now, five years later, I am sad to repeat a truth we all know too well: The Gulf Coast has not enjoyed a smooth road to recovery. Indeed, recovery has been glacially slow and many residents still have not returned home. Some have no home to return to, while others have no wish to return to a city where infrastructure fails to provide basic necessities, such as a functioning health care system and decent public schools. Many have chosen to make a new home in the place where they landed after a botched evacuation left them unsure of where they were going, but certain of what they left behind.
And to add insult to injury, yet another calamity has been inflicted upon the Gulf Coast and its disaster-weary residents: no natural disaster this time, however, but a full-fledged human-made catastrophe. The largest oil spill in U.S. history has poisoned Gulf waters and wetlands, shut down the local economy and once again left uncertainty and anxiety in its wake.
And yet, these disasters do not belong only to those who live and work in the affected region. These are national tragedies, shared collective heartbreak that requires us to reflect on our own complicity in the structures that make such catastrophes possible. Poverty and environmental racism are culprits in the Katrina disaster, as is woefully short-sighted government planning. An insatiable appetite for fossil fuel is a culprit in the oil spill, and we see environmental racism at play again as we ask unanswered questions about oil spill waste disposal. Doubtless there are other culprits, and any number of actors in the Gulf and around the nation that will contribute to or hinder what now promises to be decades of recovery and renewal.
It is my prayer that I may contribute constructively to the renewal; that I may confess my culpability and work to combat the structures that tie people into inescapable cycles of poverty and racism. I pray that my small efforts to reduce my own carbon footprint will help to end our national infatuation with fossil fuel. I pray that the little I can do as an individual and an advocate will, combined with efforts of others, amplify our collective intention to change our ways. And I hope that when future storms approach the Gulf Coast, they will be natural disasters, not human ones, and we will rebuild again ... together.
Leslie G. Woods serves as the Representative for Domestic Poverty & Environmental Issues in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C. For more information, visit www.pcusa.org/washington.