Do Not Forget the Lessons of Hurricane Rita

Posted September 21, 2007 at 4:10pm

Two years ago, Hurricane Rita came crashing ashore along the Louisiana/Texas border. With winds in excess of 120 miles per hour pushing a 20-foot wall of water, the storm wreaked catastrophic damage across Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana. The storm at its peak was the most intense ever to have entered the Gulf of Mexico, breaking a record set only three weeks earlier by Hurricane Katrina. When the skies cleared, Rita ranked as the third-most-expensive natural disaster in U.S. history.

In any other circumstance, the devastation of more than 20,000 homes, an interruption to our core national energy infrastructure and the destruction of half a billion dollars in agriculture, forests and fisheries would be big news — and it should be. Yet this catastrophe has been lost in the media shadow of Hurricane Katrina, all but forgotten by too many in Washington, D.C., and the national media, and still very much in need of attention from both.

There is simply no substitute for a firsthand appreciation of the storm’s wrath and the long-term recovery needs of the region. As we fight for the tools to rebuild and recover from both hurricanes, our greatest ally has been the impact of eyewitness understanding — and our greatest enemies have been ignorance and passive disregard.

We are tremendously grateful to all those who have shared in and told Southeast Louisiana’s important story of hope and recovery. But this story does not end at the Mississippi River. Rita was massive, but nonetheless a “traditional” hurricane. Katrina’s effects were magnified by the failure of federal levees and the flooding that followed. With different disasters come unique challenges to recovery — and stories equally worth telling.

With Rita approaching, Southwest Louisiana communities mounted an evacuation operation far larger than ever before envisioned. Not only did residents of these parishes need to seek safety themselves, but thousands of Katrina evacuees they had opened their hearts and homes to were incorporated into the plans as well. The unique combination of energy, petrochemical, timber, fishing and other regional bedrock industries serving our nation are now suffering from an equally unique labor shortage. The nature of the damage also raises questions as to whether homeowners affected by Rita will be eligible for the same rebuilding assistance as those flooded as a result of levee breaks. All the while, a failed federal bureaucracy continues to meter out miles of red tape, without the consistent guidance or decision-making to hint when, if ever, projects can move forward.

Yet, without the national spotlight rightly afforded Katrina-affected areas, the people of Cameron, Calcasieu, Jefferson Davis, Vermilion, Iberia and other Rita-devastated parishes have marched on. With generations-old roots in their community and the vibrant Louisiana spirit in their hearts, they have pulled themselves up and begun the difficult yet essential process of rebuilding. Theirs is an untold story in need of witnesses with strong voices.

And so, to the hardworking members of the media, our colleagues in Washington and to millions of Americans, we ask simply: Do not forget Hurricane Rita. It too has many lessons to offer for how we prepare for and recover from natural disasters. It tells a tale of distinctly American spirit and community. The stalwart people of south Louisiana continue to work hard to serve our nation’s energy, agriculture and other needs as they work to rebuild their own homes. This story of hope, recovery, resilience and service can never be forgotten.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) is Louisiana’s senior Senator. Rep. Charles Boustany (R) represents Louisiana’s 7th district.