Katrina didn't just change New Orleans, it also changed us. It shattered some assumptions. We thought, for example, that 9/11 prepared us to handle catastrophe. Katrina showed we were wrong.
It also shook our faith in what's possible, in how much we can control fate. Remember World War II? Then, we naively and optimistically decided we could put all of Europe back on its feet — and we did, with the Marshall Plan.
Today, how many along the Gulf Coast believe that's possible?
“We can decide that we have the national will to do this,” says Lolis Eric-Elie, a columnist at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “and to do it right. But I don't see that.”
When all the safety nets failed, Katrina revealed how much doesn't work.
And when an overwhelmed former FEMA boss said, “We're seeing people we didn't know exist,” he was merely acknowledging what all the pictures could not disguise; the great divide — economically, socially — between white and black in the region, between the haves and have-nots.
All of that raises the question, “Who is responsible for this?”
“Whenever these kind of folk are hit between the eyes, we are asked to respond to what kind of people we really are,” says Hodding Carter, at the University of North Carolina.
So Katrina was a wake-up call for bigger, better government, say liberals; for more personal responsibility, conservatives argue.
“We've got to turn around and look at ourselves,” says Shelby Steele, author of “The Content of our Character: A New Vision of Race in America.” “And I think Katrina is clearly a message to black America probably more than anyone else, if we really want equality, it's really going to be on us from here on out.”
Four months, then, of sadness, relief, failure and opportunity — to see not just whether we can fix what is broken in New Orleans, but also what is broken in us.