The Great American Comeback.

Considerable time has been spent evaluating each of the modern day catastrophic events to determine what went wrong. Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe, and since the next catastrophe is always looming, education takes on a new urgency following each catastrophe. It’s a vicious cycle made worse because humans don’t always take their own advice.

Between dogs, critters, an old house, and our own old bodies, my husband and I deal with minor catastrophes on a regular basis. Once or twice, however, there’s been an event so breathtaking that we had to think through how we’d move on. This past week my husband suggested this might be one of those times for America – we would need to decide how to move beyond the events of the past year.

These events represent a year of turmoil. A pandemic that created isolation among us and an economic crisis, an uprising to injustices, division between ourselves that turned into anger, and eventually an assault on Congress and the constitution that governs us. Power changed hands, the parties went back to their corners, a few got stuck in the middle, and now what?

In my world, there’s a sports analogy for everything. There’s stories of incredible talent, courage, failure, success against all odds and amazing teamwork. This sports analogy would be the story of a comeback. But not an astonishing come from behind in the last seconds of the race kind of comeback. This would be a long, grueling, become something even better kind of comeback. Except this successful sports comeback analogy revealed the 200-year old question America has yet to answer. Who do we want to be?

The Catastrophe: Hurricane Katrina

Credit: Vincent Laforet/AFP/Getty images

At 6:30am on the morning of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall near the Louisiana-Mississippi border. A combination of high winds, extraordinarily low barometric pressure, and a high tide caused a tsunami-like, single wave of destruction. It was the perfect storm. The storm surge remained and the ever-growing high tide kept coming in for hours, eventually overwhelming the seawalls that contain the city’s drainage and navigational canals. Sustained winds of 100-140 miles per hour stretched some 400 miles across and destroyed everything, leaving barren but water-flooded towns from the Gulf to the bayous.

Of the nearly 500,000 New Orleans residents, roughly 112,000 did not have access to a car. Before the storm, the city’s population was mostly black (about 67 percent); nearly 30 percent lived in poverty. Katrina exacerbated these conditions and left many of New Orleans’ poorest citizens even more vulnerable than they had been before the storm.

Hundreds of thousands evacuated, but those that were left behind were just trying to survive. People were living where people weren’t supposed to live. There was no power, no communication with the outside world, the temperature was 110 degrees with humidity, there were snakes in the hospital. The storm ultimately ended with 1,856 deaths, affected some 90,000 square miles, and displaced more than 1 million people in the Gulf Coast region.

Soldiers guard people waiting to leave the Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on Sept. 1, 2005. (James Nielsen / AFP via Getty Images)

The Superdome stadium near downtown New Orleans was designated a “shelter of last resort”. It had served as a storm shelter three times in the previous seven years, but this time sixty percent of the Superdome’s roof was destroyed and it was severely vandalized. Nearly every inch of the 1.8 million-square-foot interior was damaged.

A Failure of Initiative

A five-month review by the Select Committee of Congress determined there was plenty of advance warning by the National Weather Service, and the consequences of a category 4 hurricane striking New Orleans were well-documented. The Committee concluded that Government failed because it did not learn from past experiences, or because lessons thought to be learned were somehow not implemented.

“If 9/11 was a failure of imagination,” they wrote, “then Katrina was a failure of initiative. It was a failure of leadership.”

In the aftermath, FEMA Director Michael D. Brown was forced to resign, as was the New Orleans Police Department Superintendent. Louisiana Governor Blanco declined to seek re-election in 2007 and Mayor Nagin left office in 2010. In 2014 Nagin was convicted of bribery, fraud and money laundering while in office.

Excerpt from the Final Report of the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, Saints players and coaches watched the news footage in horror from hotel rooms in San Jose, California where they had evacuated. Reporters suggested the Superdome would likely be demolished and that it would be years before New Orleans would be economically viable. The Saints relocated to San Antonio where it seemed they would remain.

The Saints were one of the least successful franchises in the league at the time. In 39 seasons, they had 28 starting quarterbacks and 13 head coaches. Season ticket sales had dropped 33 percent when the general manager hired Sean Payton in January 2006.

The Saints had played their 2005 home games between the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, and LSU’s Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. The city’s NBA team, the Hornets, relocated to Oklahoma City. The Sugar Bowl was held in Atlanta. “Everyone else was going out (of New Orleans),” Payton said, “and we were going in.” Finding the right quarterback became Payton’s priority. He compared it to a pilot flying the plane.

“Regardless of who else is on the plane – the various other players and coaches and management – at some point, the quarterback gets in and flies the plane,” Payton said. “He can fly the organization right into a mountain or he can land you safely. But he touches the ball 70 times a game; 70 times a game he has the football. So anyone would tell you he’s the most important person in the building. The teams that are winning are getting good play at that position.”

In the final game of the 2005 season, Drew Brees had a 360-degree tear of the labrum (the cartilage around the joint) of his right shoulder and a partial rotator cuff tear. It was a career threatening injury. He made a free-agent visit to New Orleans in February 2006.

Brees and his wife were on a tour of the area during this visit when a wrong turn led them deep into the hurricane-ravaged area. The scale of the devastation was overwhelming, but it also resonated with the couple. In the same way Brees had rebuilt his shoulder and his football career, New Orleans was struggling to rebuild after Katrina. He could identify with the people.

Brees became the Saints’ new starting quarterback after signing a six-year, $60 million contract, the largest in franchise history. The Saints would take a chance on him, and he would take a chance on New Orleans.

Season tickets sold out for the Louisiana Superdome – the first time in franchise history. They won their first post-hurricane home game against the undefeated Atlanta Falcons and have since become one of the NFL’s most successful teams, winning the Super Bowl and six NFC South division titles since 2006. In 2010, ESPN Magazine named the Saints the best franchise in professional sports.

The impact Brees made on the team is indisputable, but head coach Sean Payton also followed through on his vision. Eleven starters from 2005 were shipped out, including the popular wide receiver Donte Stallworth. Twenty-six new players made up the initial 53-man roster. “Change is healthy,” Payton said at the time.

While previous coaches, including Mora, Ditka and Haslett, were all defensive-minded tough guys, Payton was the first offensive-minded head coach since the mid-70s. Instead of being a death knell for the Saints, Katrina was a catalyst for change. They brought hope and possibility to a city in crisis.

By 2008, the Saints had raised over $1 million in aid distributed to charities across the area. More than $1.5 million has been distributed to high school and youth football organizations with additional donations to more than 5,000 other charities annually. They made a commitment to expand opportunity for the people of their community and made good on their commitment every year.

What do we want to become?

Theodore H. White was a foreign correspondent in Asia and Europe, and master chronicler of presidential elections from 1948 to 1978. After chronicling the death of President Kennedy and the subsequent election, he wrote about the underlying drama of American politics. In this 1978 book, In Search of History, he poses the question, “What kind of people are we Americans? What do we want to become?”

“All nations, of course, had their heroes, but there seemed to be something distinctive about American heroes, just as there was something distinctive about American history. Perhaps that was because an American hero was to be remembered not as other heroes, for his conquests, but for the degree by which he enlarged Opportunity. Opportunity was what set American history off from the history of all other lands. The frontier had been Opportunity. The American school system was Opportunity. The enterprise system was Opportunity.”

But not all Americans have the same Opportunity. Racial disparities have widened – again. Life expectancies have expanded between White and Black Americans – again. A disproportionate number of women have left the job market altogether. People have lost their health care. More homes than we realize have no internet service, parents live below the poverty level despite having full time jobs – if they were able to keep their jobs during the pandemic. Children are hungry in America. COVID has affected everyone, but the poorest Americans are more vulnerable than before 2020.

From the time White first asked the question to the present day, the question remains the same. What do we want to be? The land of Opportunity, or, as White put it, “simply a Place; a gathering of entitled groups, interest and heritages. Could we become a nation where all heritages joined together in communities under the same roof of government?”

When my husband suggested this topic I had no idea where it would lead. It hadn’t struck me that perhaps America had never really decided on our vision. Give me your tired, your poor fell out of favor somewhere early along the way, and now it doesn’t seem to matter whether the tired and poor are immigrants, refugees or our own citizens. The divide grows larger in an America that has forgotten its heritage.

Today we have a new, offensive-minded head coach – and I realize every other person that reads that sentence will be put off with me for writing that sentence. In fact, even my husband was quick to point out that it’s defense that wins games.

But it’s the offensive strategy that gets you through a marathon, and this is not a come from behind in the red zone kind of comeback. This is a grueling, marathon-style come-back-even-better kind of comeback. But it is revealing to understand the difference:

Offensive behavior stems from confidence and provocation, while defensive behavior draws mainly from fear and self-preservation. A person’s offensive behavior might be done on purpose (depending on the situation), while defensive behavior is purely an instinctive response.

Brees, left, and Payton guided the Saints to their first Super Bowl win after the 2009 season. (Al Diaz / Miami Herald / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Just before that first post-Katrina home game in the Superdome, Sean Payton turned out the lights and showed a video to the Saints team. It was a video about Katrina and the devastation. It was also about the fans, what the people had gone through, and why that game meant so much to them. That game represented New Orleans’ comeback.

It’s impossible to find a perfect human being, and Drew Brees had his own controversy last year. It was his response, however, his apology for the controversial comment he had made, that reminded me of their comeback vision in the wake of Katrina:

“…. I made comments that were insensitive and completely missed the mark on the issues we are facing right now as a country. They lacked awareness and any type of compassion or empathy…. I am sick about the way my comments were perceived yesterday, but I take full responsibility and accountability. I recognize that I should do less talking and more listening…and when the black community is talking about their pain, we all need to listen. For that, I am very sorry and I ask your forgiveness.”

It’s the appropriate response for a leader, and it’s reflective of a person that wants to expand Opportunity for the less fortunate.

Before long, education will once again take on a new urgency. Commissions will review the actions, or inactions, from this year of catastrophe. Recommendations will be made; perhaps laws will be enacted that will force us to do those things we would not otherwise do on our own. We’ll turn out the lights and watch a video of this latest catastrophe, what the people have gone through, and why this comeback means so much. And maybe in the process we’ll come closer to answering the perpetual question of what we want to become.

Can we become the land of Opportunity: equal Opportunity regardless the color of our skin, where we were born, or how much money is in our pocket. Can we become a nation where all heritages join together in communities under the same roof of government? Or will we remain simply a Place; a gathering of entitled people.

Could we write an American comeback story where we are the hero, not because of our conquests, but rather for the degree by which we have enlarged Opportunity.

Government will debate for a while longer how much help we need to recover. Whatever is decided won’t be enough for some and far too much for others. But we don’t have to take a vote; it doesn’t even have to be a simple majority. We can write the American comeback story one by one by one – in our cities, our companies and our every day lives. . . because the next catastrophe is already looming. In fact, it happened last week in Texas.