I will never be the same again.
I went and saw Hurricane Katrina for myself, before we began our work there, in partnership with the Clinton Foundation, but I really had a sense (mostly from media reports) of what I was walking into. It was heart breaking, but I was not shocked. I was prepared for what I saw.
When my Operation HOPE, Atlanta, and HOPE Coalition America (national partner with DHS/FEMA for emergency economic disaster preparedness, response and recovery) teams arranged for me to tour the areas damaged by the historic southern storms, I was not ready.
The day after I signed our historic agreement with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, the tornadoes in Alabama and several other southern states struck, and so understandably our colleagues at FEMA had to shift immediately to their emergency response roles. Our jobs, was to get out of their way (HOPE Coalition America engages most effectively from approximately 2 months out, to 2-years out in disaster recovery efforts such as this). And initially the media did a fine job reporting on the unfolding crisis in the southern states. But then Osama Bin Laden was killed, the media turned away and seemed to never turn back. But the tragedy of these 170 plus tornadoes remains.
More than a dozen cities in Alabama alone have been substantially damaged, and in some cases, destroyed in total. In total. That means the gas stations, the banks, the grocery stores, the hospital, even the city hall and police station -- all gone. It is like walking into, and driving through, a worn-torn area. I am talking about entire blocks, wiped away; and in some cases, the people with them. There were more than 300 deaths tied to this disaster alone.
But the people I met while there are resilient, and so full of hope. They are finding ways to move on with their lives, with or without the resources, help and assistance they both need, and deserve. They are use to striving in the face of unreasonable challenges.
I remember, also, driving past a damaged home flying a Confederate flag. I told my team, pointing toward the home from the FEMA support vehicle that was arranged for the tour, "we go to provide that family with assistance, first." I meant that. Rainbows, only follow storms. You cannot have a rainbow, without a storm first.
Everyone should go and see what I saw two weeks ago in Alabama. It will change you, and it will change the loved ones you take with you. But if you cannot go there personally, then at the least, flip through the photos in this story. They tell a story, better than I ever could.
This is America. This is our country. These, are our people.
I have a vision of an Alabama (and her people) that is not just representative of "back," but "better." Why don't we take this time, and this opportunity, to "reset" the face of poverty in Alabama itself, and not help rebuild what was there? Why don't we help Alabama, and her amazing people, to fulfill their strongest potential. Rainbows, after storms.
I will be reporting back on our exact plans for the state once we have it, but know this --- I will be back. Again, and again, and again.
Onward with HOPE
John Hope Bryant is a thought leader, founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), and Member of the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for President Barack Obama