Rising to the Challenge

September 15, 2005

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Tempting as it may be, now is not the time to point fingers about the imperfect initial response to Hurricane Katrina. There will be plenty of time later to evaluate failures and apportion blame. Right now, all of our energies need to be focused on helping the victims of Katrina's ravages. They need our best effort.

Over the course of a career dealing with the world's most tragic situations, I have seen the most amazing and transformative human enterprises emerge from the depths of despair and tragedy.

In every disaster, we see outpourings of human courage, compassion and selflessness. The real challenge ahead — once lives have been saved and the situation stabilized — is crafting a recovery plan that exceeds in vision and hope what Katrina wrought in suffering and tragedy.

We need a plan that reflects the very best of the American spirit, one that strengthens common bonds that have been strained by this hurricane. Here are some ideas:

First, President Bush should immediately appoint a Katrina relief-and-recovery coordinator to oversee and lead our nation's response. This person needs to be a widely respected national figure with a reputation for nonpartisanship, action and integrity: Colin Powell, George Mitchell, a modern-day Herbert Hoover.

The coordinator would ensure that federal resources are mobilized in a timely, nonbureaucratic manner; that mechanisms for coordination and accountability are put in place; and that a working, practical compact between government, the private sector and the nonprofit community is established.

Second, we all need to recognize that those most affected by this disaster are the best agents of their own recovery. We need to find dignified ways to fully engage affected communities in the relief-and-recovery process — from planning responses and assisting in relief, cleanup and recovery efforts to evaluating the effectiveness of various initiatives.

Those perpetrating the looting and lawlessness in New Orleans provide a special challenge. There are multiple and complex root causes for their various displays of anger and despair — not the least of which are unfathomable urban poverty and disenfranchisement.

While Americans may debate solutions to these root causes, we can all agree on this: We need to find dignified ways to engage young, urban, mostly African-American people in the positive, hopeful experience of cleaning up and rebuilding their communities.

As part of the recovery process, we need to give that group the skills and training to help now and to prepare for a brighter future. If we miss this opportunity, we fail an important test of social justice.

Third, we need to promote ownership as a key theme in the recovery process. In several decades working on international development, I have learned one lesson above all others: Progress will never be durable if the target population does not feel strong ownership over the process.

Finally, we need to practically and symbolically engage all of America in responding to Hurricane Katrina's devastating aftermath. Donations are necessary but not sufficient.

As displaced families get resettled in communities all over America, local nonprofits, faith communities and civic organizations working with local government are the best clearinghouses for finding homes, essential services, schools and jobs. Airlines can freely transport these families. Local employers can commit to hiring 5 percent of new employees from among the resettled families.

Local law firms can provide legal services. Vouchers can be worked out with local stores and outlets for the purchase of food, medicines and other vital goods.

Our nation's major home and building supply companies — Home Depot, Lowe's and Wal-Mart, to name a few — can jump in with materials, supplies and technical help for repairs and rebuilding. Voluntary tutors and "big brothers and big sisters" can be organized for the children of Katrina.

There is so much that America can do in so many ways to honor and help the survivors of Katrina. For any of us who cannot directly help, let us instead help the most vulnerable and suffering members of our own communities.

In reference to the tsunami, former President Clinton challenged the world "to build back better." Let us challenge ourselves to respond to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy in ways that build back a better America.