As one of the almost million volunteers who went to help after Hurricane Katrina (about one out of every 230 adults in the United States) I have seen the devastation and recovery first hand. At first it seemed totally unbelievable, as if the country had moved from first world status to third world status in twenty-four hours. Basics such as clean water and soap, luxuries in places like poverty ridden Sudan were not available. People were stuck in the Superdome without a way out. This, I thought could not be America.
What we learned from Hurricane Katrina is that good leaders become great leaders and others are shown to be empty suits. It also became clear that government has a job to do but only local communities can implement those tasks. Locals know who needs what and how to cut through the bureaucracy. They also can hinder response (such as zoning out housing solutions) but in general it is the best line of action and defense.
I have written about Gov. Haley Barbour several times but I really can't write enough about what he did after the storm. I knew Barbour from his days as RNC Chair and to say that our politics are different would be an understatement. However, he ran the storm response like FDR ran the recovery from the Great Depression. Mrs. Barbour went out all over the state without saying a word that she was the governor's wife and reported who needed what every night. Gov. Barbour responded by making sure local needs were being being met.
There were no political calculations on his part, it was just helping as needed. He has moved around the Gulf Coast as if he was just the good neighbor from across the street. I've been around politicians for 19 years as a reporter and Barbour is a master of being totally present to his citizens. It is a rare gift.
There is still a very long way to go in the Gulf, as the area has been hit by a triple whammy of the Katrina, the economy and the oil spill. Americans have been shaky about taking vacations in the Gulf and jobs are still difficult to find for many. However, the response of residents has been to rebuild and develop new community institutions to address homelessness, health and educational concerns.
Hurricane Katrina forged many new alliances between the black and white communities. It forced many volunteers from above the Mason-Dixon line to reevaluate misconceptions of the South, including me.
Hurricane Katrina has served as a microcosm of America. It has brought us examples of both the best and worst of America. Insurance companies are still spending millions to limit their liability in future storms, housing solutions in New Orleans are moving way too slowly and far too many people still need a hand up.
Still, the selflessness and neighborly spirit of the American people has shone through. One million people came to help and many still do five years later. It is America's greatest strength.
Ellen Ratner is Washington bureau chief for Talk Radio News Service and a Fox News contributor.
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