As the nation s eyes remain fixated on the Gulf Coast region that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, millions of Americans will pause today to remember those who perished in the nation s last major disaster: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The fundamental question that keeps arising from the fetid, corpse-strewn waters in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama is, What went wrong?
Why was the nation s response to such a huge natural disaster in a poor region of the South so much slower than it was to terrorist attacks that struck at the heart of New York City and Washington and forced the crash of Flight 93 in rural western Pennsylvania?
Because of the vulnerability of the New Orleans levee system had been documented well in advance and was listed among the nation s top disasters in emergency planning since 9/11, why wasn t there better response to a Level 4 hurricane? Where was the leadership shown after 9/11 by then-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani?
Those questions haunt many at a time when wounds from the 2001 terrorist attacks still are healing. The trust some survivors have in their government has crumbled to the ground like the World Trade Center towers did four years ago today.
Aria Hendricks, a New York jazz singer who saw the World Trade Center burn from her former apartment in a 35-story building across the street, said the government s response to the Gulf Coast likely is being viewed differently by blacks and whites.
We grow up seeing that things are not as they are presented, said Ms. Hendricks, an African-American and the daughter of Toledo jazz legend Jon Hendricks. She cited the 1964 Civil Rights Act as an example of such cynicism. It did not eradicate racism, she said.
Ms. Hendricks said she was close enough to the World Trade Center to smell burning flesh. Debris from the towers came through her apartment window and landed on her bed.
She saw people on the upper floors of the World Trade Center jump to their deaths rather than be engulfed in the fiery hell below them. The cries she heard from the suffering remained in her head for months, making it hard to return to a normal sleep routine, even with the aid of sleeping pills.
But she noted images that appalled Americans during the Vietnam War seemed to have more impact on Americans than the sanitized images of events such as the war in Iraq, the terrorist attacks, and the New Orleans floods. She has an usual request for the media: Show us more.
You can t accurately describe what s going on down there without showing people the reality of bodies, Ms. Hendricks said. She added she s sure that what s happening in New Orleans is far worse than what Americans have seen in the media thus far.
Her father minces no words in expressing his disappointment with the Bush administration, saying the Department of Homeland Security s delayed response to Katrina was nothing short of criminal.
The finger-pointing likely will continue for years. Navy Vice Admiral John Cotton stood by the administration before a speech at Owens Community College on Thursday. He told reporters he would give the federal government an A+ for the way it has handled the Gulf Coast tragedy.
Toledo fire Chief Michael Bell wasn t nearly so enthusiastic, saying he knows all levels of government can do much better. Emergency planning is only as good as it s executed, he said.
Sometimes, the chain of command has to get out of the way to let the work get done, Chief Bell said.
Beth Miller, a former Maumee resident who worked inside the World Trade Center when it was attacked, may have saved the lives of trainees at Morgan Stanley four years ago today by trusting her instincts instead of the chain of command.
Ms. Miller took the trainees and left the firm s office on the 61st floor with the group after the first tower was struck, ignoring advice to return.
The advantage we had is that we didn t lose communication. You could see your mayor [Mr. Giuliani] on TV, she said.
Ms. Miller, now employed at Baruch College in New York City, said she has experienced more anxiety recently because of the Gulf Coast events.
If [the government] is not prepared for a natural disaster, how can we have any confidence they ll be prepared for a bomb? she said. I hope it s a wake-up call for the American people that just to go with the status quo isn t the best thing.
Madonna Fong, owner of La Luna Salon in Sylvania, said the Gulf Coast flooding was an eye-opener for Americans who didn t realize how much of New Orleans lived in poverty. America is a society of instant fixes that felt betrayed by the immediate lack of response, she said.
This is about people feeling hurt, neglected, and deserted, said Ms. Fong, who was in New York when the terrorist attacks occurred.
The Rev. Raymond Bishop, Jr., pastor of Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in Toledo, said it s hypocritical of religious leaders to put so much blame for response problems in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast on the Bush administration. He s convinced Louisiana churches could have done more themselves to evacuate people from New Orleans.
We are not free to criticize or critique other persons until we criticize and critique ourselves, he said. You cannot ask the government to do what the church will not do.
Congregations that did not do enough to help people were akin to moral lifeguards abandoning beaches. The question becomes what the pastors didn t do, Mr. Bishop said.
The Rev. James Bacik, a Catholic theologian and pastor of Toledo s Corpus Christi University Parish, said he s noticed that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 have practically disappeared from the radar screen of young people.
When there s a known enemy, it s easier to vent anger. Like last winter s Asian tsunami, the Gulf Coast tragedy raised questions about God s role in times of tragedy, he said.
Father Bacik said it s abhorrent for anyone to suggest that God might have been behind the Gulf Coast tragedy in an effort to reawaken Americans lulled into a post 9/11 slumber. The divine intervention, he said, occurs in the aftermath.
God is present where human beings reach out to help others, he said.
Contact Tom Henry at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6079.