OPINION | Hurricane Katrina taught Americans they can always overcome the storm
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As the country takes on the potential challenges of another natural disaster on our gulf coast, and as our thoughts and prayers go out for victims and first responders alike, I am reminded once again that America can overcome any storm.

For many of us, this time of year marks a closing act of summer.

But for me, these weeks are always shared by two life-changing events that occurred within days of each other in 2005: welcoming the birth of my daughter, and one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history.

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My memories are of American citizens in need and the greatest country in the world seemingly unable to reach them.

 

My daughter recently asked me what I was doing when she was born. I believe I answered that we were living in challenging times, from 9/11 to natural disasters.

I’m afraid my answer was not fully complete.

The truth is that, in the days not long after leaving the hospital with her, it became obvious that a large hurricane was forming in the Gulf of Mexico, tracking towards New Orleans.

The faces and memories of these weeks in 2005 are like yesterday to me.

I see exhausted colleagues at the federal and state levels doing their best under difficult circumstances, working around the clock to improve a situation for thousands of disaster victims.

I remember being called by former colleagues at the White House asking me to be the national spokesperson during the difficult hours of criticism of the initial response. It was somewhat like the scene from "The Hunt for Red October," when the fictitious national security adviser asks Jack Ryan to stake his reputation for the larger team, and Ryan quips that it's because “I’m expendable.” 

I see myself as a then-36-year-old new father returning home from the federal operations center late to change clothes, check in quickly on his newborn, and take a brief private moment to cry when thinking of all the commodities on their way to the children in the disaster area.  

I remember being on the receiving end of a "Good Morning America" broadcast question about an inadequate federal response, and justified media questions just like it from other networks; early media headlines of “failure” all around, and widespread criticism of the White House and administration. I knew that many disaster victims were being rescued by courageous first responders all along the coast, but pictures of Americans without power and commodities in downtown New Orleans made for the early images and headlines, and rightly begged for answers. The narrative was formed. 

Where was Jack Ryan when you needed him?

I was honored to work alongside some 2,500 people dedicated to helping victims recover from man-made and natural disasters across the United States.

Much has been written about those days. Some accurate, some with exaggeration.

In my tenure, I had experienced more than 100 presidential disaster and emergency declarations responsible for assisting more than 1 million Americans.

But nothing would compare to what we encountered those days in 2005 and beyond — and what ultimately was overcome when the entire country came together, despite the historic challenges.

Experts called it the “perfect storm” of events: a powerful hurricane that impacted an area the size of Great Britain, old infrastructure that was inadequate to protect a city from flooding, resources not fully called upon prior to the storm in order to evacuate thousands of the most vulnerable residents, and a local-state-national emergency response network rarely if ever tested to this enormous scale.  

Perhaps some critics from different political perspectives also saw a unique opportunity to pile on to a difficult situation. But critics from all sides were more than justified by the pictures of disaster victims who initially appeared forgotten. Hard questions would need to be asked, and were asked; improvements to the nation’s emergency management processes needed to be made, and were made.

The difficult early hours after the storm have codified images of Americans in need of disaster assistance, and different levels of government appearing unable to respond.

The president perhaps said it best: All levels of government were overwhelmed in the aftermath of Katrina’s landfall.

Many are tempted to close the book at that chapter.  But that wasn’t the end of the story.  

What happened next is often less told, and I believe reveals the country’s true character. 

Beyond the enormous challenges facing disaster victims and first responders alike, what I remember most is the country’s perseverance to overcome and help fellow Americans.  

In sports, it is sometimes referred to as the "second wind," that moment when you are exhausted and want to give up but feel that extra something down deep to give, because the race isn't over yet. There were thousands of first responders and volunteers who never thought of giving up.

All levels of government had to innovate, adapt plans, and systematically improve the situation.  

In the face of enormous criticism and unprecedented challenges after landfall, what would ultimately follow was the emergency evacuation of tens of thousands of storm victims to multiple states, an event the likes of which has never been attempted much less accomplished in the modern history of our country.

Thousands of disaster victims would be cared for by thousands of Americans in numerous states around the country.

I think of the countless reports of rescue by the heroic U.S. Coast Guard, the multitudes of first responders, specialty disaster assistance teams, the U.S. Army, and volunteers who worked around the clock, against the odds, to create new plans and stabilize miles of devastation.

Many lessons learned have been discussed in the years after Katrina; federal, state and local governments deserve credit for adapting their collective preparedness, response and recovery activities.

Often, the end of a book can look very different from the beginning.

As an eyewitness to history, I believe a much less written chapter in the book of Katrina is the perseverance of an American spirit to innovate and adapt to the initial challenges, and eventually overcome historic circumstances.

I saw an American family get its "second wind" and help neighbors of many backgrounds. 

Just as my now-12-year-old daughter marks growth and successes since those days, the beautiful city of New Orleans has as well.

And as we mark the 12th anniversary since Katrina, I also say a prayer of remembrance for disaster victims who suffered, for the current situation impacting residents of our gulf coast, for all those who continue to persevere in the aftermath of any tragedy, and for all those who work tirelessly to help keep us safe.

And I take with me the belief that America can always overcome the storm.

Patrick Rhode was a special assistant to the president under George W. Bush, Federal Emergency Management Agency chief of staff within the Department of Homeland Security, and NASA senior advisor. He is currently the U.S. vice president of corporate affairs for Cintra, an international infrastructure company.


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