Re: No More Katrinas: Economic Levees Prepared to Break Across America

In the American military I am told that should a fellow Marine or soldier fall on the battle field, in the line of duty on foreign soil, we would send in as many troops as was required to rescue and bring that soldier home, …but under no conditions would we leave him there.  Why? Because simply, he’s an American, and Americans leave no one behind. No one.

This is the American military code on foreign land – a quality I believe not reflected by any other military or nation in the world when it comes to valuing the life of one soldier – and it is but one of the amazing aspects of the unspoken code and yet unbroken spirit of America that makes this country not only great, but arguably the envy of other countries the world over for more than 200 years.  It is but one of the reasons why people flock to America.  It is the spirit of America, and our unwritten social contract; “we will leave no one behind.”

But we are not talking about the American military here, nor the complications of bringing a soldier home in a war on foreign soil, we are talking about a defenseless elderly man, on the streets of an American city, in the richest and most technologically endowed and financially blessed country in the world, left to die on an American sidewalk, on our nation’s soil.

In the days, weeks and months post Katrina, we broke our social contract, from one American, to another, like no other period since the civil rights era – and we did leave Americans behind.

More than 1,000 dead, to be exact. Many more still being discovered in attics, and alarming even more still, in living rooms and kitchens of 9th Ward homes in New Orleans, some 90 days later.

For the first time that I can remember since the pain of 1960, America left one its own behind.

But what really breaks my heart is the indifference. It has been said that hate is not love’s opposite, indifference is.

That is the pain that I feel, as I walk the halls of a Congress that seems to have “moved on” from Katrina – no resolution in sight.

That is the pain that I feel, as I sit in meetings with high level federal officials, seemingly responsible for a “prompt response” to Hurricane Katrina and Rita, and the pain and damage it wrought on the least of these…and then come to understand that many of these same individuals have never even visited Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama in the hazy, destruction clouded sunset of Katrina.

That is the pain I feel when I realized that many in the Administration, in the private sector, in other parts of America, have simply “turned the page” on Katrina, and moved on.

Well, the problem is my friends that Katrina is going to turn that page back, time and time again over the next 12 months or longer.

Are we ready? Are we even engaged? Or do most of us simply say, either, it’s simply too overwhelming and what can I possibly do about it?

Or worse still, it was just another disaster; we have them all the time, and I guess someone will handle it. Always does. It’s America, after all.

Well, I have discovered, painfully, that no one is handling it, and it is not going away.

And then you have the victims. Not 50,000, or 100,000 or even 500,000, but 2.9 million. More for this one single disaster, registered over a 60 day period with FEMA, than all disasters in all of 2004 combined.

It was Stalin who once said, “one death is a tragedy, but 1 million deaths is a statistic.”

Stalin, not one of my heroes, meant nothing positive in this unfortunately prophetic statement, for he meant it as a cover for the very death campaign he himself was waging against those unable to defend themselves. 

But he had this right; we understand and we even grieve for the death of one. We can understand, and relate to the death of one. But 1 million?

It seems just too overwhelming for the human spirit to understand, comprehend, or process.

And so, we push it away, assign it to someone else, hope it will just – go away.

Where Do We Go
From Here?

As the Delta flight touched down on the runway and taxied to our gate, I wondered what Dr. King would say today to America and its leaders post Katrina? I wondered what he would say to me.  And, in that instant, sitting on the tarmac, it hit me; that Dr. King would simply say this — America, “no more Katrina’s.” 

John and Operation HOPE, and organizations mobilizing around the silver rights movement, “no more Katrina’s.” 

And seeing what I have seen in New Orleans on this, and my other trips prior, I am also convinced that Dr. King would also say to America’s leadership elite – in government and the private sector alike – that there are yet still “levees ready to break,” in New Orleans, in Baton Rouge, in the state of Mississippi, in the state of Alabama, and in cities like Detroit, Baltimore, Harlem, Oakland, and South Los Angeles, all across America.

Economic — levees, ready break.

That was an economic levee that broke in South Central in the wake of the Rodney King trial in Los Angeles. A fundamental loss of hope in what we have come to know as the American dream.

That was an economic levee that broke in the suburbs of Paris, France weeks ago. A fundamental loss of hope in what they were told was French liberty, equality and fraternity.

That was an economic levee that broke in the days following Hurricane Katrina and Rita, when you have FEMA representatives asking, “where do I wire your $2,000 benefit check,” to victims with no bank account. More than 70 million Americans have no bank account today, in the richest nation in the world. America, we can do better than this.

And there are still unfortunately economic levees ready to break in the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina and Rita. The reality is, things could quiet possibly get worse, before they get better in the recovery effort.

This is what happens when you have a population of people who were effectively in a state of personal economic disaster even before Katrina hit them. Individuals living from paycheck to paycheck; financially illiterate, economically unprepared, and fundamentally under-educated – in one of the poorest states in the nation. 

This is what happens when the average income in the 9th Ward in Louisiana was $10,300 annually.

This is what happens when folks don’t earn enough to own an automobile, and felt so economically strapped by life that, to them, the only decision that seemed to make any sense at all was to stick around on August 29th, 2005, effectively avoiding an evacuation order from the State a day prior, simply so they could pick up their next check in the mailbox on August 30th, 2005. This is what happens when people are forced to live hand to mouth in America.

And unfortunately, more pain is coming for Katrina victims, and for America, in weeks and months ahead — instead of less.

The reality is that when you and I get into trouble with a disaster or unfortunate situation, we find a way to pick ourselves off, dust ourselves off, get our families resettled and situated, update our skills, find a new job, and move on. But Katrina victims don’t generally fit this description ladies and gentleman.

What I am saying is 2-3 months following a disaster, on balance you and I are doing much better. But 2-3 months following this disaster, I would be willing to wager that the average Katrina victim is doing much worse. Much. And this trend will continue. Allow me to draw the picture.

More than 500,000 automobiles destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, and counting.

More than 630,000 mortgages effectively on a bubble and unresolved, in the disaster zone.

Or put more simply;

Car loans, and no cars;

Home loans, and no more homes;

Small business loans, and no going concern;

Consumer debt and credit card bills, and no jobs;

This is the second stage economic disaster that Operation HOPE speaks of  and continues to educate the American public, government and private-sector interests about – the second stage economic disaster that most always follows the physical and emotional disaster.

And so, yes, in the weeks and months ahead we must and we will find a way to mobilize more than 5,000 volunteers to aide the victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, with emergency disaster financial counseling, emergency credit and budget counseling, assistance with reclaiming one’s economic and physical identity, and economic triage work (deferring payments and where appropriate, helping to restructure credit agreements).

With the help of 1,000 committed volunteers, with almost half of them trained and a smaller group actually mobilized, we have already worked with and in some way assisted more than 3,700 victims of Hurricane Katrina, along with our partners, through our 1-888-388-HOPE toll free line and call center, made possible by our friends at First American Corporation.  This in itself is reason to be proud. We are part of the solution, but there is so much more than will need to be done in weeks and months to come. We will be ready.

But for all we do now, we are simply stemming the tide. Hoping to get lucky, and not be literally overrun with need as victims begin receiving pressure filled calls from lenders looking for their money. Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

This is not an answer, it is a response.

An answer understands not just the effect, but also the root cause.

An answer gets ahead of the problem, and finds creative ways to taps down on risks, until the problem becomes no more than an inconvenience. This is the miracle of modern financial markets in America.  Experts, at identifying, managing and taping down on risks.

Well, what are the risks associated with potential economic levees breaking, all over America, I ask?

What are the risks associated with millions of Americans who feel disconnected from the whole of America, and worse still, feel that the invaluable social contract with America has been irrevocable breached?

What are the risks, and what happens, when we build levees on the cheap, placing strong walls on top of weak soil?

And so, I am suggesting that there is really no alternative now to America making a real and sustainable investment in its poor, it’s under-served, and the wealthless in America.  An investment focused on a hand up, and not a hand out.

An investment that insures that our children our no longer financially illiterate, in the largest and most economically prosperous nation in the world.

An investment that insures that a man, willing to work, finds an honest job before he is enticed by or otherwise drawn into a dishonest life. If a man cannot find a job, he will unfortunately find something else to invest his energies into, another way to seem of value to himself and those he considers his family, even it if is not honorable.

Yes, unfortunately there are economic levees about to break all across this great country of ours, and going forward we must all do what we must, to insure that there are no more Katrina’s in 21st century America.

If the 20th century was about issues of race and the color line all over the world, or what we call civil rights, then the 21st century, an economic era, will be about issues of class and poverty, or what I and we here at Operation HOPE call silver rights.

For the first time in modern American history Hurricane Katrina put a face on poverty, for all the world to see, and now silver rights, and a bold silver rights movement, has the real potential of converting the storm called Katrina into a brilliant rainbow called HOPE. 

After all, it is a scientific fact, that you cannot have a rainbow, without a storm first.

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