What’s the Katrina where you live?

from Rev. Alison Cornish:

When the editors of our newsletter told me that they wanted to devote much of the April newsletter to the subject of the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I was deeply moved, and grateful to have a chance to share more of my experience with you. In these times of short media (and individuals’) attention spans, we all know how hard it is to follow a story over the course of days and weeks, never mind months or years. For me, my trip to New Orleans was a keen reminder that long after a story leaves the front – and even back – pages of the newspaper, people continue to struggle mightily to put their lives back together. They continue to mourn and grieve losses. And, at a time when they are most vulnerable and depleted of resources, they continue to come up against powerful forces that frustrate justice and equity.

When the television coverage of the days after Katrina showed the world the chaos that ensued, I, like many people, was deeply distressed by the lack of a committed and clear response to human suffering from every level of government. What is so sad today is that the situation goes on, and on – the end is not anywhere near in sight.

While Imke and I met and talked with those who have been living and working in New Orleans this past 1 ½ years, I was struck by the number of people who said, “Thank you for coming. We need your help. But please remember that New Orleans is not unique, ‘special.’ What happened here could happen – anywhere. What’s the Katrina where you live?”

I interpreted their words a couple of ways. In one sense, as a people, we have too often disregarded what it takes to live in harmony with the natural world. When the wetlands that provided a buffer to the Gulf Coast were all but eliminated, and when a below-sea-level city was thought to be adequately protected by some man-made dikes and levees, the door was left open for the flooding of New Orleans . This is certainly not unique to Louisiana . The debris of our carelessness and hubris exists all over our planet in the clear-cutting of rain forests, rampant production of carbon dioxide emissions, aggressive pumping of our aquifers – I could go on. Katrina shows us our deeply fallible notion about how powerful we think we are when it comes to controlling the effects of weather and climate.

But I also interpreted their words as this: our towns, cities – the communities and neighborhoods of our nation – are broken. Sure, when the systems are working for those with privilege, it’s tough to see all that is broken. But when a disaster arrives, and the curtain is pulled back for all to see into the depths of a place all manner of people call home, the truth is revealed. What we witnessed in those hours, days and weeks after the storm represents years – even centuries – of systemic and institutionalized oppressions. A city – a country – does not “suddenly” engage in racism, or classism – it takes years of history and actions, laws and practices to accomplish this. The answer to this version of “what’s the Katrina where you live?” is difficult to answer. Perhaps we have many already here on the East End – the lack of affordable housing, the immigrant workforce at the vortex of a political and legal maelstrom, depletion of fresh water resources, gentrification of our few mixed-race and mixed-income neighborhoods. Any one of these is a keen reminder that the systems in place are working well for only a part of the population who call this place home.

It sounds strange to say that I’m grateful, deeply so, to have gone to New Orleans – that the trip was a gift to me. May it be a gift that helps me to keep on giving – as inspiration, as reminder, as connection, and as compassion.




Reverend Alison Cornish is the pastor of the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of the South Fork in Bridgehampton. This article and the companion article "Journey to Another World" were originally published in the UUCSF Bulletin for April, 2007.

Rev. Cornish can be reached at acornish@uuma.org