Roger Rosenblatt Reflects on Hurricane Katrina

September 9, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: I don’t know much about public policy as a study or activity. I just always assumed that it had something to do with the public. That assumption was challenged by events relating to Hurricane Katrina which seemed to separate public from policy, and leave the former in the lurch.

Yet with Katrina there were public policy issues and consequences everywhere one looked. Issues connected to levee construction and maintenance — Superdome construction and maintenance — Road construction, city construction; avenues of escape, vehicles of escape, vehicles of rescue; questions of mandatory versus voluntary evacuation; law and order, including numbers of police and National Guard; health issues concerning bodies, polluted waters, lack of water, food and power; charitable giving, food and water distribution, communications; politics itself, certainly; the authority of different agencies, local, state and federal; and perhaps most evidently care for the elderly, the ill and the poor.

Did I mention death?

It is the custom of officials and commentators to regard these issues and those that ramify from them as abstraction: Policy over public, public over person. But the person, the individual for whom all policies supposedly are set in motion still manages to stand out.

One of the first noticeable people during Katrina was Hardy Jackson of Biloxi who lost his wife, Tonette, in the floodwaters. Pictured on television he stood before the world helpless and in despair as he described that terrible moment.

HARDY JACKSON: I hold her hand as tight as I could. And she told me, you can’t hold me. She said take care of the kids and the grandkids.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Today Mr. Jackson returns to the nothing left of his home and of his wife.

SPOKESMAN: Any sign of life.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Where was Hardy Jackson, one wonders, when the people who were attending to all the public policy issues were making their plans, for when the abstractions have been reassessed, only Mr. Jackson matters.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Kafka’s “Trial” begins with a man who came before the massive door representing the law. But a sentinel keeps him out, for years. Near death the man asks, “Who in this world is allowed to enter and come before the law?” The sentinel says, “Why it’s you. The law was made only for you.”

Schools of public policy have burgeoned in recent years. If I were teaching in such a school, I would bring Hardy Jackson to class if he would consent to come. And I would ask him to tell the students his story again. Hardy Jackson, the only person for whom public policy should be made, the poorest, the weakest, the most vulnerable and therefore, the most valuable. I would ask the class to look hard at Mr. Jackson, to remember Tonette — and then go to work.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.