Emory Report
April 10, 2006
Volume 58, Number 26


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April 10 , 2006
Former N.O. mayor weighs in on Katrina

BY michael terrazas

National Urban League President and former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial said the United States needs to make “an unequivocal commitment” not only to rebuilding the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but to making the region’s levee system second to none in the world.

Morial visited campus April 5 to deliver the University’s annual Grace Towns Hamilton Lecture in Cannon Chapel, and after arriving a bit late due to travel difficulties (brought on, ironically, by inclement weather), he delivered remarks that were worth the wait. Speaking without notes, the former two-term mayor of New Orleans and Louisiana state senator relayed his personal view of the damage Katrina wrought, discussed both failures and successes in the hurricane response, and cast an ambitious, hopeful eye toward the future.

“Very seldom do we get the opportunity to rebuild an entire city or region, but the United States is the Great Rebuilder,” Morial said, citing successful American efforts to rebuild cities and countries with whom it has waged war, such as Germany and Japan following World War II, the Balkan region during the 1990s and ongoing reconstruction in Iraq.

But not in the last 100 years, Morial said, has the United States been forced to rebuild something of itself following a “natural super- disaster,” citing the Chicago fire of 1871 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 as the most recent events that even approximated Katrina. “Today,” Morial said, “those are two great international cities.”

“What would you want us to do if it were your hometown,” he said. “That’s the only question to ask. You wouldn’t want people suggesting that only some people have the right to return.

“I believe we as a generation will be judged, 25 years from now, by what happens, by whether this recovery is successful.”

Morial spent little time dwelling on the “many man-made mistakes” made before and after Katrina (“There were mistakes by government at all levels,” he said), but he did stress what he called the under-reported positive news, such as the tremendous outpouring of support from private citizens, businesses and other organizations across the country, in donating their money, their time and even their homes and schools to take in Katrina refugees.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s immediate mobilization to rescue those stranded along the coast was another positive, Morial said. “But for their intervention, I would say the death toll would have been three or four times as high.”

Finally, the decision by thousands of college students to forgo beaches and beer during spring break or other vacations this year, and instead flock to the Gulf Coast and pitch in however they can, is yet another good story. Morial compared it to the marches and “freedom rides” of the 1960s civil rights movement, and he urged more students—and even faculty—to keep up the work this summer. “What we need is: All hands on deck,” he said.

Morial then turned to the future. He again called upon the federal government to spend whatever is necessary to construct a levee system that will withstand future Katrinas, and he added there is precedent: “The entire nation of the Netherlands is below sea level, and we’re talking about a country of 16 million people,” he said. “Their levees are based on a system of redundancy … and it is far superior to the levee system [in the Gulf Coast]. I don’t think the United States should have a levee system second to what the Dutch or the Italians can build.”

Morial also challenged scientists to determine whether global climate change is affecting the strength of hurricanes and tropical storms. He said, as Katrina swept over Cuba and Jamaica, it was a Category 1 storm. “As soon as it entered the Gulf of Mexico, it’s like someone gave it a super steroid shot—in two hours, it went from a 1 to a 5,” he said. “The only explanation is that the waters of the gulf were warmer than usual.”

Though he refrained from assigning any direct political blame for Katrina response, in closing Morial could not resist a veiled critique of one aspect of the federal government. In suggesting it is time to “go back and re-engineer FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency),” he urged Congress to write into law the job qualifications for the agency’s director.

“You don’t pick an MBA to be surgeon general; you don’t pick a Ph.D. to be attorney general,” he said. “Disaster response is a science. Universities give degrees in it.”