As recovery planners plot their course in the Gulf region, some of today’s college seniors will soon secure a well-placed rung on the socioeconomic ladder through consulting or investment banking. Others will fill niches in nonprofits, teaching and graduate schools. Many will find ways to give back to their communities. But this fall, as one who is only recently removed from this demographic, and after two weeks spent volunteering in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Baton Rouge Joint Field Office, I urge today’s college seniors to give public service their highest consideration. Our country’s present state at home and in the world demands nothing less.
For those who might still doubt the long-term severity of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the facts of destruction vividly illustrate the challenge ahead. To estimate conservatively, there are one million displaced persons, thousands of homes destroyed and levees that will take months to fully repair. It is a rebuilding effort that federal officials estimate could take 10 to 15 years. While there have been comparable natural disasters in the region and the country in years past, today’s transportation and communication networks mean that the displaced could travel further faster, making it more difficult to convince those who left that it is in their interest to return.
And that is just the beginning of the concerns and questions that must now be addressed. How can we design and implement a Marshall Plan for the Gulf Coast region? How can we create the legal incentives necessary to ensure our country’s broadband connectivity system plays a more productive role in disaster response? How can intergovernmental cooperation be improved? How can the U.S. government move forward with Gulf Coast reconstruction and retain budgetary flexibility? With the terms slightly altered, any one of these might constitute a good job interview hypothetical. Unfortunately, these are the questions our nation must answer now.
The convergence of these questions is historic in its complexity. It has generated a political and strategic climate in America not seen in the last 50 years. Unlike the period following the Cold War’s end, there is no peace dividend to spend on domestic projects. Unlike the oil shocks of the 1970s, the present strain to our oil supply competes with a greater number of issues atop policymakers’ lists. Unlike the years following World War II, we lack political capital to spend globally.
Among the many calls since Katrina’s and Rita’s landfalls — for money, for goods, for leadership, for systemic reconstruction, for bureaucratic heads — perhaps the most important one, for sacrifice and service from the American people, has not received the prominence it should. These challenges demonstrate, and my time in Baton Rouge confirmed, that the problems our country faces are severe. Those who visited Baton Rouge while I was there understood this. The sporadic radio service, darkened homes and persistent stench encountered on my drives to, from and through New Orleans helped me understand it.
In an age where the sovereign power of NGOs, philanthropic billionaires and private sector companies is on the rise, the disaster in the Gulf validated the persistent need for good government. The search for answers to the problems of the hurricanes’ aftermath requires leadership and intellectual competence at all levels — tactical and strategic — to ensure their proper resolution. One good source of this is our best and brightest college graduates who, free of mid-career commitments, would do well to genuinely contemplate public service in their city, state or Washington, D.C., as their first post-graduate hire. Over 50 years ago, a Greatest Generation answered a similar call. We owe our country and that generation’s members nothing less than to do the same now.
Marc Sorel ’04 works in the Secretary’s Office at the Department of Homeland Security. He is a former sports editor for the News.