Post Katrina America: What the waters left behind

Two and a half years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast could be a “training ground” for the issues that face the United States today, Norman Francis, president for Xavier University in New Orleans told the USCCB 2008 Social Ministry Gathering. He said a renewed rebuilding effort could be a template for a new way to approach the nation’s racial, social, and economic divides.

“This nation was not prepared for this kind of catastrophe and it still is not,” said Francis, who serves as co-chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. A primary lesson the United States learned from the hurricanes, he said, is that the legislation for the federal response to disaster relief needs to be revised.

Francis pointed specifically to the Stafford Act, which provides funding after disasters. Francis complained that disaster survivors need resources a lot faster than the trickle-down rate offered by Stafford’s provisions.

In addition to disaster response, Francis named health care—particularly mental health, housing, and educations--as key areas in which the Gulf Coast is a training ground during the Social Gathering’s domestic plenary speech. “We’ve been planning and planning and now is the time for execution,” he said.

Of particular concern for Francis is education. He spoke on the need to improve education in order to counter the affects of racism in the United States. Even today, he said, “the playing field is not level.”

He called for the nation to change its approach from equal treatment to “equitable treatment.” Applying equal treatment to unequal circumstances, Francis said, does not change the conditions. Instead, he advocated for giving more resources to help the poor and allowing for affirmative action.

Education, he said, is particularly important “because that’s the door that opens opportunities.”

Francis lead Xavier, historically the nation’s only African American Catholic college, to reopening on Jan. 17, 2006, just four and a half months after Hurricane Katrina hit, leaving the school under 5 feet of water.

The school, New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast are still on the road to recovery, however. Francis left the conference to face the Louisiana Supreme Court in a lawsuit against insurance companies.

“We need everything that Catholic social teaching can offer,” he said. “We invite you individually and collectively to walk with us as we travel to a better home and to peace and justice.”—Megan Sweas

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