The empty Katrina moment

The face of the young child from the Gulf Coast on the cover of this Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine is haunting. The eight year-old boy looks traumatized, alone, bereft. Inside the A-section of the paper another picture, this one of an animated marching band in New Orleans, along with the caption, “Spirit has returned to much of the city.” As I read the massive number of articles this weekend on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I was left with a decidedly mixed feeling – perhaps more aptly said a decidedly empty one.

Americans response to Hurricane Katrina broke all records for charitable giving. That’s simply amazing – more money than in response to the Asian Tsunami; more even than in response to 9/11. In the meantime, our political leaders declared that we would make the Gulf Coast our new battleground to fight poverty, racism, inadequate schools, and other social and political ills.

Indeed, post-Katrina, it seemed that we had made an implicit deal with ourselves: give enough money, deliver declarative proclamations, and the problems would somehow go away.

During 9/11 we made a similar deal, if you recall: then, too, we gave money, lots of it, plus we sang patriotic songs, adorned cars with flag decals, and expected the problems to dissipate.

The empty feeling I have this morning is that progress and innovation in the Gulf Coast, or in any other community (or, for that matter, in any country), takes more than our modern-day approach to change.

First and foremost, a certain kind of truth-telling must occur.

There are no quick fixes to these dilemmas. Money cannot replace the web of relationships and civic-minded organizations and engagement that is required to reconstruct norms, people’s place in the community, and authentic hope.

What’s more, our attention span must transcend events and timetables that mark progress in our own lives and communities. Places undergoing rebuilding and transformation have timetables all their own; if we are smart and fortunate and a bit lucky, we can speed up progress, but we cannot hold out the false promise that change will be easy or quick.

So, this morning, I have fixed in my mind the eyes of that eight year-old boy and the members of that marching band, and I wonder what happened to them after those pictures were snapped. Where did those individuals go? What did they have for dinner that night? Was anyone nearby to give them a word of comfort and hope? Were enough steps, in the right ways, being taken to truly improve their lives?

Truth-telling, when coupled with authentic hope for progress and change, can replace feelings of emptiness, even when efforts get stalled or derailed. Of course, this would take pursuing a different path on which a different conversation would occur, one that lays bear the challenge and asks each us to step forward and engage differently.

The little boy’s eyes – this is the message I take from them.