IN THE AGE of the 24-hour news cycle, Hurricane Katrina is an old story. New Orleans may have been one of America's great cities -- the land of dreams, as Louis Armstrong called it -- but its destruction is yesterday's news.
Sure, we remember images of bodies floating through neighborhoods and people atop rooftops. In the end, it was one of the costliest disasters in American history, and one of the deadliest, too.
As we know, all the governments -- federal, state, and local -- were slow to respond, but eventually they stepped up to the plate, and now, according to their press releases, are doing a great job at restoring normality in New Orleans.
So, everything's OK, right?
That realization came to me recently when I traveled to New Orleans as a volunteer with the Red Cross of Massachusetts Bay.
We expected to see some remnants of the destruction, of course, but we also looked forward to the bang of hammers, the whir of saws, and the buzz of rebuilding.
What we saw, instead, were scenes that are shocking, inexplicable, and embarrassing.
A year and a half after the hurricane, neighborhoods remain pocked by row after row of abandoned homes, still standing and still condemned by those painted X's -- large, ominous, and as faded as the promise President Bush made to rebuild New Orleans.
The brunt of the disaster is measured in sights, but also in sounds -- in the words of many people in New Orleans who are still desperate, but now disconsolate and distrustful of governments and institutions they once believed to be honorable.
A taxi driver who helped evacuate tourists and who spent three months in a shelter in Mississippi described a plight familiar to many in the land of dreams.
"The insurance companies won't pay, even though I paid them my premium on time for 37 years," he says, "and there is no help from the federal government."
Now living with his wife in a small apartment, he doubts he'll be able to rebuild. He and his wife are reminded of happier days when they drive by their old home, now boarded up.
In the Ninth Ward, hardest hit by the hurricane, a guide describes the Federal Emergency Management Agency's program to lodge the homeless in two-room trailers to which at least six people are assigned. Victims of Katrina are still crowded into more than 64,000 of these trailers. Thousands of additional trailers purchased by FEMA never have been used and are now being auctioned at discount.
While many people we interviewed concede that the challenge is greater than any individual and beyond the capabilities of Mayor Ray Nagin, Governor Kathleen Blanco, President Bush, and even FEMA, they nevertheless expected more from a nation they now believe has abandoned them.
As one frustrated resident put it, "How can the United States government pay for the war in Iraq and not us?"
When you hear a man who has lost everything tell you that his government is indifferent and his fellow Americans do not care, you have learned a lesson in what happens when leadership fails.
Once a city that symbolized freedom and happiness -- a land of dreams -- New Orleans is now a painful reminder of what happens when governments lose their will and institutions crumble, when the bonds that hold together a successful society are allowed to fray and then to snap.
The time for promises is past.
Sure, there are pockets of hope created by individual acts of conscience. You see people who refuse to permit fellow citizens to suffer. You see students from across the nation who come to New Orleans to work for Habitat for Humanity, constructing houses that will give families a second chance.
The Red Cross, still working to rebuild its offices destroyed by Katrina, has been a supportive presence, caring for more than 90,000 people immediately after Katrina and offering shelter and food to hundreds more after a recent deadly tornado.
But, we all need to rededicate ourselves to New Orleans. We need to recompense the victims of Hurricane Katrina. We need to redouble our efforts at reconstruction. And we need to help them replenish their spirit and recover their confidence in American governments and American institutions.
Geri Denterlein is president of Denterlein Worldwide, a Boston-based public affairs firm.
We are not OK.