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'Please don't forget us'.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Six months after Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of the housing in New Orleans and erased much of historic coastal Mississippi with a wrecking-ball storm surge, survivors make a special effort to thank every visitor they meet.

"It's so wonderful of you to come," they say with uninhibited sincerity. And to a person, whether they're in St. Bernard Parish or Pass Christian, Miss., the last thing they say as visitors leave is not good-bye. It's "Please don't forget about us."

"Please don't forget about us" is not a parting pleasantry. It is an earnest plea, so serious that it's said without the gracious Southern smile that accompanies almost all farewells.

They entreat us to remember them because they fear if we do not, they'll never secure the staggering amount of federal help they'll need to rebuild splintered homes and shattered lives. It takes very little imagination to see why they're worried.

In fact, six months after the apocalyptic hurricane recalibrated time on the Gulf Coast into pre-Katrina or post-Katrina, it takes no imagination at all. A walk down almost any residential street in low-lying New Orleans does the trick. A drive down U.S. 90 along the Gulfport and Biloxi beachfront in Mississippi requires no narration.

Katrina was a monster storm when it thundered in from the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 29, 2005, with hurricane-force winds at landfall stretching 120 miles out in all directions from its eye. Those winds pushed a gigantic storm surge landward from the gulf. The wall of water was 35 feet high when it slammed into Bay St. Louis, Miss. Take a look at the top of an average flag pole to get a rough idea of how a person or a house stacks up to a 35-foot wave.

The surge blasted homes clean off of 8-foot pilings and turned their contents into torpedoes that damaged property up to 10 miles inland. Countless irreplaceable historic buildings and houses were obliterated. In one disastrous day, more than 65,000 Mississippi dwellings were destroyed, and more than 230 people lost their lives.

To the west, an 18- to 20-foot storm surge roared into New Orleans, and flooding began before the eye made landfall. Catastrophic structural failures in three key levees dumped billions of gallons of water into a city that is essentially a below-sea-level bowl. In a matter of hours, 75 percent of the metropolitan area was covered with as much as 20 feet of water. More than 1,100 people died, and 215,000 Louisiana homes were destroyed.

Despite nonstop media coverage of the unfolding nightmare in New Orleans, nothing can prepare post-Katrina visitors for what they encounter in the Crescent City six months later. Huge parts of New Orleans remain uninhabitable, without water or power, populated only by daytime demolition crews wearing dust masks and white Tyvek suits. Hospitals, schools, restaurants and banks stand vacant, often with the telltale "still water line" - where the water finally stopped rising - clearly visible halfway or more up the outside walls. Hundreds upon hundreds of flooded cars, many with their doors and trunk lids wide open, remain abandoned under freeway overpasses in a life-imitates-art scene from a disaster movie.

In the hardest hit neighborhoods, don't bother looking for the water line. There are no walls left. Anywhere. As far as the eye can see, there's nothing but kindling and concrete slabs littered with the detritus of vanished families - children's toys, small appliances, plumbing fixtures, faded towels. Lifelong residents of these neighborhoods have trouble getting their bearings. Familiar landmarks are gone.

Six months later, much of this almost incomprehensible destruction appears essentially untouched, as if someone had made a conscious decision to preserve it as a memorial to the costliest natural disaster in the nation's history. The shell-shocked citizens of New Orleans, wherever they may live today, can't help but wonder what's taking so long.

From a distance, it's profoundly difficult to comprehend the enormity of the disaster that has befallen Louisiana and Mississippi. What is missing is as shocking as the devastation apparent to the naked eye. Almost a million people were displaced, scattered to at least 45 states in the largest diaspora in U.S. history. Thousands will never return.

Recovering from this history-making calamity will require more money, more effort and more patience than anyone could have dreamed of on Aug. 28, 2005. Our fellow Americans in Louisiana and Mississippi will need our support for years - yes, years - to come.

They're counting on us to keep a fickle Congress and a blame-shifting White House from abandoning a region filled with poor people who lack political clout. They're hoping we'll come see with our own eyes what no TV image, photograph or news account can ever fully convey.

What happened on the Gulf Coast of the United States during the furious storm season of 2005 was not just another bad hurricane down in hurricane country. It was not just another terrible flood in America's most celebrated flood plain.

It was an unprecedented national catastrophe whose consequences will transform a region and its people in ways we cannot yet predict. We must not forget them, and we must not let them down.

Associate Editor Jim Godbold recently returned from a National Conference of Editorial Writers fact-finding trip to Louisiana and Mississippi. A series of editorials assessing Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts on the Gulf Coast will appear in the coming week.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Hurricane Katrina's victims still need our help
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Feb 26, 2006
Words:905
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