A DECADE ago, when Hurricane Katrina poured her wrath on the Gulf Coast, America wasn't prepared for the kind of wholesale destruction we witnessed. The Category 3 storm killed nearly 2,000 people, destroying more than 100,000 homes. But it wasn't just the physical destruction that alarmed us. It was the emotional toll of watching a disaster that could have hit any of us.
In the wake of the deluge that tore through levees and destroyed a city, portraits of devastation filled our television screens, and disbelief filled our minds.
We couldn't fathom an America where people were left on rooftops, cobbling together makeshift signs in fruitless efforts to get help. Nor could we understand an America where immediate help was not forthcoming.
But in spite of what we wanted to believe, heartbreaking images poured in from impoverished areas, such as the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, and a running theme began to emerge.
In one scene after another, we saw poor people of color begging for assistance, and in one scene after another that assistance never came. It was a phenomenon that prompted Kanye West to go off-script during "A Concert for Hurricane Relief," a benefit aired on NBC after the hurricane.
"George Bush doesn't care about black people," West said of the man who was president at the time.
Liberal writers like Tim Wise concurred. In a September 2005 column, Wise said Bush's contention that it was important to help people 'in this part of the world' was troublesome. That prompted Wise to pose several rhetorical questions to Bush.
"Did they not tell you, as you flew overhead from a safe distance, that this was an American city?" Wise wrote in an essay titled "Of disasters, natural and otherwise."
"Did they not tell you, when you left your precious dude ranch to go first to San Diego for a fundraiser, that the town that had been devastated was in the United States? Had you known, would you have come quicker?"
Such questions were asked often in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, because, while nearly $142 billion in relief funds eventually went to the region, the money was too late to avert the chaos we saw in round-the-clock media coverage of the disaster.
Americans watched in horror as the New Orleans Superdome was transformed from palatial football stadium to hellish triage unit. Those who were rendered homeless by the storm were forced to go there, and to watch as the weakest among them died before they could receive adequate medical help.
Before it was over, the beautiful city my wife and I had visited just four years earlier became something totally unrecognizable.
Gone was the place whose Southern charm was embodied by the rhythms that enveloped my wife and me, played by Ellis Marsalis in Snug Harbor Cafe. Gone was the place where local delicacies, like beignets and po'boys, were part of a culinary culture that made food seem like an inexhaustible resource. New Orleans in the wake of the storm was a ghost town, a place with no food, no water and seemingly no compassion for the poor.
A decade later, New Orleans is coming back, but the poor have largely been replaced by millennials in a city that is rapidly gentrifying.
But before the weed-ravaged lots of the Lower Ninth Ward are replaced by shiny new condos, and the images of poor people abandoned on rooftops are forgotten, perhaps it would serve us well to remember what happened a decade ago.
After all, the images of people reaching skyward as helicopters flew overhead did not come from a disaster in some far-flung corner of the world. They came from right here in America. We should never forget that, because the moment we allow the horrors of Katrina's aftermath to fade away, we are doomed to repeat them.