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Remembering 2005: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans

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New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: Flood dev...

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Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. It’s ironic that at this very moment, the people affected by the floods in Pakistan are being forgotten in a way very similar to what transpired five years ago in Louisiana.

I remember that week well. I was doing some work from home for the Buddhist Peace Fellowship when the news of the Hurricane came to the forefront.  I felt outraged at the stories of people being stranded on their rooftops, waiting for rescues that never came. I felt so helpless sitting there in my apartment in Oakland, CA, wishing there was something I could do. The only thing I could think of was to call the Greyhound Bus company to see what it would take for them to send their buses there to help get people out… I couldn’t fathom how the U.S. government couldn’t get its act together to help those affected. And so I dialed Greyhound. (They couldn’t help.)

I sat down and wrote what eventually ended up as “Waking Up to the Tragedy of New Orleans,” which you can read in the Writing section of this blog. Rarely have I had words flow out of my pen so quickly and so passionately. Here’s an excerpt:

To witness the travesty that has been New Orleans over these past five days is heartbreaking beyond belief. And outrageous.

Phrases comes to my mind, and at first I thought them too inflammatory to write here. But I will anyway, because I want to wake us up. I want to wake myself up. Genocide. Ethnic Cleansing. Economic Cleansing. What else to call it when thousands of poor, Black people are allowed to die in front of our eyes? And not just any death – excruciating deaths, brought about by lack of food, water… drowning deaths because people have waited for rooftop rescues which never came, and while they watched other corpses float by… children dying, old people dying, disabled people dying.

The really sad thing is, I’m not sure much has changed since August 2005.

May all beings be safe.

About Maia

I've been practicing and studying the Buddha way since 1994, and exploring the question "What is engaged Buddhism?" since the late 90s. As former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, Turning Wheel, I had the honor of meeting and working with many practitioners of engaged dharma, including Roshi Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, Alan Senauke, and Robert Aitken Roshi. I write about socially engaged Buddhism on my blog, "The Jizo Chronicles," as well as on the theme of personal and collective freedom on my website, "The Liberated Life Project." Through my Five Directions Consulting, I offer support to individuals and organizations who aspire to integrate awareness into their work.

2 responses »

  1. Maria,
    I am sure you do not mean to be inflammatory but this piece is inflammatory, incendiary and divisive. Rather you would focus on how things have improved for the people there regarding housing, police force changes and the like. What is past, is done. Let’s now focus on the improvements. Billions of dollars have been spent there for the people’s housing and basic needs. The Gov’t was certainly not on the ball but to accuse them of deliberate genocide, is irresponsible and untrue. Please, more peaceful and skillful speech.

    • Arpita,

      Thanks for taking time to comment on this post. I hope that you were able to take the time to read the whole article (linked above). I admit that the excerpt I chose was probably the most inflammatory part of that article — in the rest of the article I did more unpacking of the dynamic of institutionalized racism and also how it permeates our sanghas (and is present in my own psyche as well).

      I believe there is a place in Buddhism for anger, and for calling out injustice. When you say that my piece is irresponsible and untrue, I have to say that the actions (or lack of actions) on the part of the federal government were irresponsible in the grandest sense and contributed to the suffering of many beings. This was true not only in the aftermath to Katrina, but in the years before the Hurricane in the failure of the Army Corps of Engineers to build levees that could hold to protect the city. (There’s a new film about this just released: )

      As to the use of the word “genocide,” in retrospect (and remember I wrote this article while the disaster was unfolding) that may have gone one step too far. However, I do wonder how the response would have been different if Katrina had devastated a city with a majority white, upper-class population. New Orleans and Louisiana has gotten the short end of the stick in many ways, and I believe this reflects the unconscious (and sometimes not so unconscious) racism that still permeates our society, despite our best intentions. If you get a chance, watch the film “Trouble the Waters” — I’d be interested to hear what you think of it.


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