[Hurricane Katrina]

PORTLAND - Draw a straight line from Portland, Oregon to Mobile, Alabama. That's a lot of miles - just over 2,100 air miles, in fact - between us up here in the Pacific Northwest and them down there along the Gulf Coast

On the afternoon of August 29, 2005, all those miles seemed to disappear as Hurricane Katrina made her second landfall in southeast Louisiana. She'd weakened from a Category 5 to a 3, but still was a monster of a storm. Killing at least 1,850 people. Doing more than $100 billion in property damage. Turning the Big Easy into a big, fetid pond.

As we sat in the comfort of our living rooms transfixed, horrified by what we were witnessing on our televisions. The pictures told us everything we needed to know. Though 2,100 miles away, on August 29th Katrina's victims became our next-door neighbors.

And they needed our help. Unfortunately, while FEMA and other local, state and Federal agencies had thought themselves prepared for Katrina, the initial responses was feeble, haphazard, inadequate. Knocked for a loop, though, Americans always find way to pick themselves up, brush themselves off and get back to doing what needs to be done. In the weeks after landfall that's exactly what Americans did.

We've been doing it ever since. Over the last 10 years, HUD's allocated nearly $20 billion to recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast. Some 158,000 households received direct compensation for their economic losses. 2,894 families received help to purchase homes. 12,600 houses have been rehabilitated or reconstructed. 767 new housing units have been constructed. Support has been provided to 33,597 affordable rental units.

HUD's assisted 55,000 businesses and built 82 new schools, 11 higher education facilities, 13 healthcare facilities, 22 fisheries and 52 water and sewer projects. Katrina was "strong" said HUD Secretary Julián Castro, but "the resilient spirit of the Gulf Coast was even stronger. And as long as there are people who want to come home and communities that need to be rebuilt HUD's job is not done."

But this isn't a story about all HUD's done to help the Gulf Coast recover. It's about hundreds of HUD employees across the country who answered a call from then HUD Secretary Mel Martinez for volunteers to travel to the Gulf Coast to help the hundreds of thousands of Katrina victims start putting their lives back together.

[Hurricane Katrina]

Employees like Kim McCollim, then with HUD in Spokane and now in Seattle. "I remember my first night. I'd mapped the drive but when I got to where the map said I should get off the highway there was no exit," Kim recalled. As midnight approached she ended up where "I knew wasn't where I was supposed to be." Streets that had become rivers. Boats sitting atop gas stations. Dogs running wild and dumpsters stuffed to overflowing. "I'm not sure, but it's probably the first time I'd ever smelled death."

She was ready to turn around and head home to Spokane. She stayed. "I had a couple of chairs next to my desk" in the FEMA Disaster Recovery Center. "People who'd waited hours in line just wanted a chance to sit down. And to talk about what they'd been through. One man told me he'd sat for a couple of days on the roof of his house in a flooded neighborhood. Every so often, he told me, he'd hear the sound of someone falling off their roof, some cries of "help me, help me" and then silence."

Or HUD employees like Amy Oakley with HUD in Seattle. She still recalls the "destruction from the storm - foundations with no homes, trees down, and roads torn up" and that there were "so many people needing assistance" in Gulfport where she worked, frustrated that "as much as I wanted to snap my fingers and build them a home, or write a check, I couldn't." A decade later, she says she'd like to return to see how the community has recovered. "My hope is that the people I met were able to rebuild their homes and, most importantly, their community."

And employees like Laura Walters of HUD in Portland. She worked in Baton Rouge and still remembers the "the quiet, deep despair" among Katrina's victims. "Unless you'd been though it you couldn't imagine how the human spirit is scarred," she said. "Which is why, purposely, I didn't view the actual destruction, I purposely did not view the physical destruction. I didn't attempt to understand, didn't try to put myself in their shoes because I knew I'd never really know all they'd suffered, all they had endured. Better for them, I did my work quickly and efficiently, offering compassion and many a silent prayer."

Laura, Amy and Kim could have stayed home. But like hundreds of their colleagues, they answered the call, knowing they weren't guaranteed a pay raise or a promotion and aware they'd endure many of the same difficulties and deprivations facing the storm's victims. They went anyway. Given another such opportunity, they'd probably do so again.

That's what being a Federal employee, being an American is all about. As we commemorate the good work since Katrina, let us not neglect to commemorate them.


Content Archived: January 25, 2017