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Reflections on Hurricane Katrina and the Moon Landing -- the Heights and Depths of American Accomplishment

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Five years have passed since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and other areas along the Gulf Coast, resulting in nearly 2,000 deaths and total property damage estimated at more than $80 billion. The failure of the levee system and subsequent flooding of New Orleans triggered the damage or destruction of more than 200,000 homes in New Orleans and the displacement of more than 800,00 people. Many of us have vivid images of the ensuing relief chaos, so eloquently captured in Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.

I was working in Accra, the capital of Ghana, when the Katrina disaster occurred. The immediate reaction of one of my Ghanaian coworkers was to state, "America will rebuild New Orleans in no time!" With my natural cynicism, I asked, "Why are you so confident that American will react quickly?" My Ghanaian coworker countered, "America is the richest, most powerful country in the world. You even put a man on the moon. If America can spend billions of dollars on wars in Iraq, it can certainly rebuild a city in no time." He then proceeded to challenge me:

Of course, America is a very corrupt country with a dirty history of oppression, injustice and slavery. While America likes to lecture Ghana about corruption, every African knows all about Halliburton's no-bid contracts and their connections to your vice president.

He then qualified his initial statement by saying, "America could rebuild New Orleans in no time, if it wanted to."

When our conversation ended, I walked away with many thoughts spinning in my head. I remembered how outside the United States, people are often more aware of other countries, cultures, history and news than Americans. Perhaps this is a reflection of America's educational system, America's embedded self-perception of exceptionalism or merely a negative side-effect of America being so powerful. I remembered the launching of the 2003 Iraq invasion and how pathetic Colin Powell appeared trying to defend the upcoming invasion with "evidence of weapons of mass destruction" that wouldn't convince most schoolchildren, let alone the rest of the world. I remembered the feelings of helplessness as the American government insisted on waging a war, with virtually no debate or discussion in Congress or in the media, while public protests were actively suppressed. Finally, I remembered my grandfather's collection of newspaper cover pages. His favorite was the 1969 moon landing as he insisted that the manned moon landing was the greatest event in all of history, not merely U.S. history. Mankind, he argued, had been staring at the moon throughout history, and America will always be known as the first country to place a human there.

Five years later, I dread running into that same Ghanaian coworker. He would undoubtedly remind me of the government's poor response to those suffering during Hurricane Katrina. He would point out the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failures, FEMA's issues, the needless death and the slow recovery of many parts of the city. He would soon swing the conversation to talk about more recent events. He would cite how the US government can find so many billions of dollars to support banks, bankers and other financially and politically elite, as well as pay for wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan but how America is torn apart arguing about providing basic health care to all its citizens. He would point out that the ugly reality of American inequality raised its head in the government's reaction to Katrina. He would remind me of the media's obsession with race-based stories about chaos and hooliganism, prominently displaying images of armed national guards. Lastly, he would conclude that "A person, group or even a country's priorities are reflected in how they spend their time and money. America could have rebuilt New Orleans in no time, if it wanted to."

My response would be:

You're right that America can do almost anything, including rebuilding New Orleans in no time, if it wants to. We can solve issues like poor public education, incomplete and exorbitantly priced health care, high crime rates, huge incarceration rates and massive inequality it we want to. It all depends on how America choose to allocate its resources including time and money. Remember, we were the first to land a man on the moon.