After Banda Aceh in Indonesia was devastated by a horrific tsunami in 2004, the people there faced the challenge of rebuilding and restarting their lives. That is the same challenge that people on the Gulf Coast are facing today. I visited Banda Aceh earlier this year on a trip to Indonesia, and earlier this week I visited some of the neighborhoods ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. I was struck by what the people in Banda Aceh and New Orleans had in common, both because of what they went through, and because of the incredible resilience they have shown in the wake of those tragedies. But I was just as struck by how those places differed - especially how, in many ways, New Orleans seemed worse off than Banda Aceh did a year after the disaster.
When I visited Banda Aceh in February 2006 - a little over a year after the original tsunami hit - though many of the reconstruction programs had yet to be completed, there was visible progress being made, thanks in large part to the generosity of the American taxpayer. I saw homes, roads, buildings, and bridges being built with funds that the American government generously gave to the victims of the tsunami.
What I saw in New Orleans, New Orleans East, the 9th Ward, St. Bernard Parish, and Lakeview, was that in many ways, despite people's tremendous efforts, there has been less progress in those areas than there was in Banda Aceh a year after the tsunami. It is something I will never forget. Imagine driving through your hometown only to find, to this day, deserted streets, destroyed homes, and virtually no sign of reconstruction. While the shells of some homes still stand, they are completely unlivable inside, due to weeks of toxic liquid filth soaking into the structures of every room. Next to some of these homes are concrete slabs where a house used to be, while others have trailers parked in the front yard where a family is living because the house's roof has completely collapsed. There was a house that had the back of it completely ripped off, the front was totally dilapidated and someone had put a sign on the house saying that the insurance company had only paid a little over $10,000 to fix the structure. You could see an orange line around the outside of some houses which showed where the water was standing for some time outside the house. Who knows how high the water got inside the house. This went on for blocks and blocks and blocks of several different areas I toured.
While much work has already been done, and people in the region are working very hard, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges that remain. That made me all the more impressed with the commitment shown by the clean-up crews, constructions workers, emergency personnel, and by all those who have moved back.
The people of the Gulf Coast, who lost so much to Katrina and Rita, have been putting their hearts into rebuilding. People there aren't faced with just rebuilding homes and businesses and roads. They are also faced with rebuilding lives and communities and a society...and doing so in a way that incorporates the region's most vulnerable populations and establishes the foundation for a society to thrive.
I strongly support the aid we have given to those in Banda Aceh and others who were the victims of the tsunami in 2004, and no one disputes that we have responsibility to help them rebuild. But we also have a special duty to the people of the Gulf Coast who still need us. Almost a year after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, after more than 1,500 people were killed and countless lives were disrupted, our fellow Americans do still need us, and we still need to stand by them as they rebuild their lives.