I watched Spike Lee’s HBO documentary When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts again for about the nine hundredth time. The stories are powerfully haunting and heartbreaking still. Hurricane Katrina laid bare the enormous cost and curse of poor leadership. The lessons about democracy in failure, race, class, the power of the media, and the limitations of local, county, state and federal governments are all captured by the unblinking lens of the filmmaker’s camera.
Sometimes it seems as though bad news, gets overrun by terrible news, only to be trampled by horrific news. According to the Pew Center for the People and the Press on an average day 81% of Americans access news. We see news everywhere. And news itself is a big business. CNN, the all-news-all-the-time network has an annual compound growth rate of about 20% and profits of almost $400 million a year. The constant demand to keep eyeballs glued to televisions, newsprint and increasingly the Internet is an important driver of ad revenues and media profits. The predictable result is a veritable flood of stories–the good, bad and ugly flow rapidly and repeatedly to hold our attention. And some stories–important, life changing stories get lost in the ever changing currents of the news stream.
When it comes to stories left behind, the destruction of New Orleans as a result of Hurrican Katrina tops the list for me. Why? Well largely it’s because the destruction of New Orleans represents such extraordinary tragedy and human failure on so many different levels—individual, institutional and governmental. And partly because New Orleans offers cautionary lessons to not-for-profit organizations and their leaders from the likes of the Red Cross. New Orleans stands as a testament to the power of hope and faith. The renewal of city neighborhoods offers vital lessons about the importance of fresh, innovative approaches to leadership in the face of major disaster and its aftermath.
So what are the big lessons learned? If you were teaching future leaders, what wisdom or insight would you offer? What would you tell them? What can we take away from this extraordinary disaster and what can we as leaders offer in reflection in its place now some three years later? What do you think we’ve learned? We know we can do better. The question that haunts me still is how much?