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Hurricane Katrina

Location: Washington, DC

HURRICANE KATRINA -- (Senate - September 06, 2005)


Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I rise to address what has been a heartbreaking week for all of us. As was mentioned by my distinguished colleague from Washington, I just returned from a trip from Houston with former Presidents Clinton and Bush as part of a fund-raising effort to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As we wandered through the crowd, we heard in very intimate terms some of the heart-wrenching stories that all of us have witnessed on television over the past several days: Mothers separated from their babies; adults mourning the loss of elderly parents; descriptions of the heat, filth, and fear of the Superdome and of the convention center in New Orleans.

There was an overriding sense of relief in Houston, and the officials in Houston and in the entire State of Texas deserve great credit for the outstanding job they have done in creating a clean and stable place for the tens of thousands of families who have been displaced.

A conversation I had with one woman captured the realities that are settling into the families as they face the future. She said to me: We had nothing before the hurricane, and now we have less than nothing. We had nothing before the hurricane, now we have less than nothing.

In the coming weeks, as the images of the immediate crisis fade and this Chamber becomes consumed with other matters, we will be hearing a lot about lessons learned and steps to be taken. I will be among those voices who will be calling for action. In the most immediate term, we will have to assure that the efforts at evacuating families from the affected States proceed--they are not finished yet--that these Americans who are having to flee their homes, their cities, their counties, and their towns are fed, clothed, housed, and provided with the medical care and medicine they need.

We are also going to have to make sure we cut through the redtape that has inexcusably prevented so much help from getting to the places where it is needed. I can say from personal experience over the last week how frustrating it has been, how unconscionable it has been to be unable to find somebody in charge so that we can get medical supplies, doctors, nurses, and other supplies down to the affected areas quickly enough.

We are going to have to make sure in this Chamber that any impediments that may continue to exist in preventing relief efforts from moving forward rapidly are eliminated.

Once we stabilize the situation, this country is going to face the enormous challenge in providing stability for displaced families over the months and years that it is going to take to rebuild. Already the State of Illinois has committed to accepting 10,000 displaced families. There are stories in Illinois, as there are all across the country, of churches, mosques, synagogues, and individual families welcoming people with open arms and no strings attached.

Indeed, if there is any bright light that has come out of this disaster, it is the degree to which ordinary Americans have responded with speed and determination, even as their Government has responded with what I consider to be unconscionable ineptitude, which brings me to the next point. Once the situation is stable, once families are settled for at least the short term, once children are reunited with their parents and enrolled in school and the wounds both on the outside and on the inside have healed, we are going to have to do some hard thinking about how we could have failed our fellow citizens so badly and how we will prevent such failures from ever occurring again.

It is not politics to insist that we have an independent commission to examine these issues.

It is not politics. Indeed, one of the heartening things about this crisis has been the degree of outrage that has come from across the political spectrum--from across races, across incomes; the degree to which the American people sense that we can and we must do better, and a recognition that if we can't cope with a crisis that has been predicted for decades, a crisis in which we were given 4 to 5 days' notice, then how can we ever hope to respond to a serious terrorist attack in a major American city in which there is no notice and in which the death toll and the panic and the fear may be far greater?

That brings me to my final point. There has been a lot of attention in the media about the fact that those who were left behind in New Orleans were disproportionately poor and disproportionately African American. I have said publicly that I do not subscribe to the notion that the painfully slow response of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security was somehow racially based. I do not agree with that. I think the ineptitude was colorblind.

But what must be said is that whoever was in charge of planning and preparing for the worst-case scenario seemed to assume that every American has the capacity to load up the family in a SUV, fill it up with $100 worth of gasoline, stick some bottled water in the trunk, and use a credit card to check into a hotel on safe ground. I see no evidence of active malice, but I see a continuation of passive indifference on the part of our Government toward the least of us.

So I hope that out of this crisis we all begin to reflect--Democrats and Republicans, Black and White, young and old, poor and wealthy. I hope we all begin to reflect, not only on our individual responsibilities to our families and ourselves but on our mutual responsibilities to our fellow Americans, mutual responsibilities that reflect themselves in church and community organizations and block clubs but also express themselves through our Government.

I hope we realize the people of New Orleans were not just abandoned during the hurricane, they were abandoned long ago--to murder and mayhem in their streets, to substandard schools, to dilapidated housing, to inadequate health care, to a pervasive sense of hopelessness.

That is the deeper shame of this past week, that it has taken a crisis such as this to awaken in us the understanding of the great divide that continues to fester in our midst. That is what all Americans are truly ashamed about. That is what I am ashamed about. And the fact that we are ashamed about it is a good sign. The fact that all of us don't like to see such a reflection of this country that we love tells me that the American people have better instincts and a broader heart than our current politics would indicate. ``We had nothing before the hurricane,'' the woman told me. ``Now we have even less.'' I hope we all take the time to ponder the truth of that message.

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