Days after Hurricane Katrina left 1,800 Gulf Coast residents dead and 1 million displaced, I volunteered at a relief shelter in San Antonio. Thousands of New Orleans residents had arrived there via bus with only the clothes on their backs, some without shoes on their feet. Now ex-pats in their own country, these men, women and children had made a six-hour trek from devastation to dry land, tempted to stay behind and search for the loved ones they hadn’t heard from after the levees had broken. But they needed to seek refuge for their own safety and ostensible sanity. So they got on the bus.
The shelter was thick with grief, anguish and illness. Storm survivors had asked me about how they could get ahold of insulin to regulate their diabetes or the pills needed to treat their HIV or cancer. At the shelter’s makeshift call center, one woman wept after repeatedly dialing the exchange to an elderly relative’s home; she kept getting a “no longer in service” recording from the operator.
On the cusp of Katrina’s 10th anniversary, I think about the people I met at the shelter and about the lives that have been forever upended by forces of nature and forces of a now notorious governmental failure. However, the Tribune’s Kristen McQueary (“Chicago, New Orleans, and Rebirth”) believes Katrina ushered the renaissance of a great American city, contending that the hurricane spurred NOLA’s leaders into taking care of business, cutting budgets and rebuilding what had been swept away. If only a Katrina-like storm could hit Chicago, however metaphorically, to whip our politically and financially decrepit city into shape.
For all of what McQueary calls the rot of Chicago, feigning envy that Katrina was a one-shot panacea for all of the Big Easy’s ills smacks at tone deafness to human suffering. For what NOLA has regained in the last 10 years, does she consider what it’s lost?
She has every right to voice her opinion on what Chicago leaders should do to reset the city, but making a parallel to one of the greatest disasters in human history for the sake of journalistic timeliness is insensitive and unnecessary.
McQueary’s citizen’s SOS, in which she likens Chicago residents’ political plight to Katrina survivors “climbing onto their rooftops …and lurching toward rescue helicopters,” adds further insult to injury.
No, she cannot relate. Not even metaphorically. Because although Chicago is not perfect, she can still call it home.
Published in the Chicago Tribune on August 16, 2015.