Reflecting on Hurricane Katrina Ten Years Later

Bethan Johnson
August 31, 2015

Ten years ago today, after Hurricane Katrina was downgraded from a Category 3 storm to a tropical depression, President Bush flew over New Orleans and saw that 85% of the city was underwater. Eight days after meteorologists began warning us of the storm, Hurricane Katrina had displaced more than one million people in the Gulf Coast region and killed scores.

While presidents, pundits and newspapers remember the tragic losses and report on the subsequent economic growth in the region, it is critical to recall that we can play a role in prevent future ecological destruction. Inspired by the words of Pope Francis in his most recent encyclical Laudato Si’, which draws upon the richness of Catholic Social Justice Tradition, NETWORK believes that Americans must do more than passively marking the storm’s anniversary and instead look for solutions in the current climate change crisis.

The pope is clear—the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the dozens of other natural disasters both in the United States and abroad are our problem because they are our doing. He writes, “Our Sister, Mother Earth…now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” Leading environmental researchers and climatologists align with the pope’s conclusion that these and other natural disasters are rooted in our current ecological practices.

According to reports, Hurricane Katrina alone displaced more than 600,000 Gulf Coast residents for more than one month and destroyed more than one million housing units in the region, inflicting roughly $135 billion in damages. Since then, meteorologists report that hurricanes, tornado outbreaks and earthquakes across the nation have displaced or killed millions of people. Moreover, actions like that of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that significantly damaged the Gulf Coast’s marine ecosystem show that we have failed to see the seriousness of our actions in relation to climate change.

Catholic Social Tradition teaches us to see our world as a gift and endows us with the responsibility to preserve God’s creation. In the book of Genesis, God grants humankind dominion over the earth, but throughout the Bible God calls people to serve as protectors of Creation, forever conscious of their temporary power and duty to act as stewards for their children.

As the U.S. bishops recognized in Hurricane Katrina: Reaching Out, Renewal and Recovery in Faith and Solidarity, during Hurricane Katrina, “human lives [had] been destroyed and human dignity [had] been assaulted.” We at NETWORK believe that this same destruction extends to other human-caused natural disasters. Instead, we like the bishops believe that the “tradition of Catholic social teaching offers a developing and distinctive perspective on environmental issues [including] a consistent respect for life, which extends to all creation.”

We at NETWORK also agree with the pope’s observation that this call to stewardship extends beyond the preservation of earth and oceans; heeding God’s call is also an issue of care and compassion for humankind. He observes, “Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.”

Hurricane Katrina and the dozens of other environmental disasters since have had true human cost. Pope Francis calls on justice-seekers to consider inequality in their societies through the lens of environmental destruction. He writes, “Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry.” By expressing concern over pollution, water scarcity and diminishing biodiversity, we are also living out the Gospel call to live in harmony with nature and work for the good of this generation and those to come.

In the face of this call to action in the face of so many disasters like Hurricane Katrina, we see two paths to establishing a more just approach to our environment. First, as the pope advises, we look to those in Congress and in state governments to work together to find solutions to issues of pollution and water scarcity and to consider innovative methods for promoting alternative energy. We hope that our political leaders can also become leaders in environmental protection by valuing human dignity and coming generations over short-term profits and the influence of big business.

Moreover, Pope Francis calls humankind to act justly on an individual level. He notes that not all issues of environmental inequality and misuse can be solved by technological advances or legislation. Each person can play a role in protecting nature. We at NETWORK hope that people look at their environmental impact and consider what they can do on a daily basis to reduce their footprint. No action is too small; no conversation about stewardship is too short.  Each represents an expression of faith in God’s gifts to us and can help change our world in the generations to come.

As Pope Francis makes his final preparations for his visit to the United States in September, we encourage all people in the United States to seriously consider new, innovative solutions in the issues of global climate change. As Pope Francis implores, “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.” We look to Congress to promote activities and policies that preserve God’s creation and promote equality, and we call upon justice-seekers to remind our national leaders of the pressing need to protect our world and to live out the Gospel teachings about global stewardships for the sake of ourselves and the coming generations. We believe that this—and not statistics on new revenue streams or real estate boom in New Orleans—serves as a strong indicator for how our nation has recovered from this deadly storm.

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