Concerned about Louisianians stranded in the unsanitary Superdome, the governor of Texas invited all 25,000 of them to the cool, dry Houston Astrodome Wednesday. Thursday, he invited another 25,000 evacuees to San Antonio. "We're neighbors and we're going to pull together," Gov. Rick Perry stated.
After hurricane Katrina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama are now everyone's "next door." Those states' vast needs require help from across the country - donations to private charities, offers to open up homes to the displaced, and all levels of government assistance.
The catastrophe is also particularly relevant to those who share the same potential for large-scale disaster or evacuation - people living in flood or earthquake zones, for instance, or cities deemed terrorist targets. As Governor Perry observed, "we could be the ones that have this extraordinary need."
Dealing skillfully with this current need, therefore, serves a dual purpose: helping the millions directly affected, and teaching Americans how to cope more effectively with disasters.
So far, local, state, and national officials have shown a good measure of competence in handling Katrina before, during, and after it hit.
Last year, local and state officials along the Gulf of Mexico were criticized for poor evacuation procedures in advance of hurricane Ivan. This time, they called for mandatory evacuations early on and opened all lanes to outbound traffic on the two interstates leading away from Louisiana's and Mississippi's most populous areas. More than a million people fled, including about 80 percent of the population of New Orleans.
Because President Bush designated both states disaster areas in advance of the storm, the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency could mobilize beforehand, setting up shelters and bringing water, ice, and food.
Rightly, the Bush administration recognized the storm's ripple effect on oil, and temporarily waived key air-quality fuel standards to increase gas supplies after the storm damaged the Gulf's petroleum infrastructure.
The Pentagon has also sprung into action with an unprecedented domestic joint task force, coordinating National Guard and active-duty forces across four states. Meanwhile, naval vessels and helicopters are on the way.
But the death toll; the plight of people too ill, poor, or stubborn to evacuate; the lawlessness; and the billions of dollars in destroyed homes and businesses show just how much officials at all levels - and individuals - still have to learn in handling a truly far-reaching disaster.
Response has been quick, but with more prepositioning of National Guard forces and equipment, it could have been faster. Evacuation planning should have served disadvantaged people better. This storm reminds coastal regions that wetlands preservation does matter in controlling flooding (Louisiana has lost 1 million acres of marshland since 1930), and so do building restrictions.
Now, and in coming months of reconstruction, Americans must remember their Gulf neighbors. They need our prayers and donations. And all of us need to learn from their experience.