The huge task ahead

New Orleans native and former mayor Marc Morial C’80 has been though a few hurricanes in his day. As a boy, he rode out Hurricane Betsy at his grandmother’s house in 1965 and as mayor, led the first evacuation of the city for Georges, which grazed New Orleans in 1998.

Widely considered the most effective mayor in the Crescent City’s history—presiding over a decrease in crime, a reformed police department and massive infrastructure improvements—Morial blasted the official response in the first 72 hours after Hurricane Katrina hit land. To find out what went wrong, Morial supports a transparent commission similar to the one put in place after 9/11. Congressional hearings, he said in the inaugural Fox Leadership Forum on Sept. 12 at Irvine Auditorium, are a good step, but are not enough.

“We have a humanitarian crisis right here in the United States of unprecedented, indescribable and unfathomable proportions,” said Morial, now president and CEO of The National Urban League. It is, he added, a problem we’ve never faced in this country before, involving a massive displacement of people equivalent to two-thirds of the population of Philadelphia. As a democracy, “we’ve got to ensure that this never happens again.” Morial said that a commission should be able to get to the bottom of several nagging issues about the response, including what the plan was to manage the shelters of last resort in New Orleans, and what local, state and federal officials did to prepare for the storm. Morial added that he never saw a unified message from Mayor Ray Nagin, firefighters, police officers and other emergency management personnel, indicating there might have been a breakdown in communication.

Penn students studying political science, some from the affected region and a displaced Tulane student at Penn for the semester asked questions about the politics of the disaster and what students can do to help those directly affected. “This is going to test whether the nation can stay focused after it isn’t the lead story in CNN and MSNBC,” he said, stressing the important role students can play in raising and donating money and volunteering at the shelter in North Philadelphia that houses some evacuees. “This is an opportunity, I think, to venture off campus a little bit,” said Morial. “This now becomes the nation’s highest priority.”

He also emphasized that Katrina was an equal opportunity destroyer—leaving many poor white citizens devastated alongside black citizens—and urged the importance of a fair and just rebuilding process. Morial also supports a victim’s compensation fund, similar to the one set up after 9/11. “It is the issue of our times and the issue that is challenging this generation.”

Originally published on September 22, 2005