Three Stories Hurricane Katrina Told Me

Tuesday, September 1, 2015 - 9:49 am
Vikki Spruill

Some people are drawn to snow-covered mountain peaks, others to the lush canopies of forests a meandering river, a shimmering plain. For me it is the call of the sea. The endless horizon brings me peace and each wave  a grace note in our ecosystem’s symphony. It is the sea where I go to think, to connect, and to be.

But like fire and wind, water can destroy as easily as it can nourish. This week, we are reminded of those who experienced the deadly repercussions of Katrina, as well as their powerful effort – assisted by many of our members – to rebuild New Orleans. While each of their stories is unique, the totality of New Orleans’s destruction seems – still – too much to bear.

I remember the destruction of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a disaster that happened during my time as CEO at the Ocean Conservancy. Not long afterwards, I was in a helicopter, flying low over the coastline to see first hand the  economic havoc on the Gulf Coast. It is tempting to think of these disasters as single moments in time; if they were, we would  perhaps have less to fear. But the truth is that such disasters are far too frequent in the world, with innocent people bearing the brunt of the pain every day. And while ten years seems like a long time ago, there is much yet for philanthropy –and our partners in government and business– to do.

Katrina told two stories and is now telling a third.

It told a story of natural disaster. Changes in our climate will continue to create more fires, more hurricanes, more tsunamis and more tornados, all of which will increase the demand on our collective resources to prepare, respond and rebuild.

It told a story of identity – of segregation and economic disparity. It escapes no one’s attention that the Ninth Ward, a majority African-American community, experienced the worst of the flood. When the levies broke, I watched on TV with most Americans as the streets flooded. First the water rose to the sidewalks, then it consumed the first and then the second floors of peoples’ homes. The waters flooded and slowly the horrifying story unfolded: if your house was low to the ground and you could not evacuate to a roof or attic, you were in serious danger. The loss was staggering and the disparity clear.

Ten years later, the third story is being written. There is a “new” New Orleans: Some are returning and rebuilding, while newcomers are arriving and are beginning to call it home. Philanthropy has been part of this story from the beginning and continues to invest and engage.  

Philanthropy calls on us, individually and collectively, to not only respond, but to learn – to do better each time we engage. And this, in the end, is what Katrina teaches us. It is together that we can navigate the largest issues, and it is together that we can create and secure the future of communities –  of New Orleans, of your local community, and of our global community.

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