WAVELAND, Miss. – “What town is this?” I asked the young man standing on the lawn with arms folded.

“Waveland,” he says. “Or it used to be.”

“It will be again,” I assure him.

“I hope so,” he says. His tone suggests his expectations aren’t particularly high. It’s hard to blame him. In Waveland, railroad tracks are ripped from track beds and twisted like plastic bag ties. Cars are stacked in piles and neighborhoods have been stomped flat, peaked roofs sitting atop mounds of rubble maybe 5 feet high. Other houses seem to have simply exploded, leaving nothing but a field of debris.

I am parked in the driveway of what used to be a home in a very nice neighborhood. The ocean is across the street. Once in a while, cars go by slowly and people look around, faces slack, expressions numb.

Just a few days ago, I might have told them about Hurricane Andrew. I rode that beast out 13 years ago in a bedroom closet. It ripped the roof from the house, drove a tree through my wife’s car, took virtually everything we owned.

So I found myself trying to comfort Katrina’s victims by assuring them from experience that, while things are difficult now, they will get a little better every day. But the words have come to feel facile. There is no comparison between Andrew and Katrina. The difference between them is the difference between severe damage and total destruction.

To properly understand what has happened here, it helps to think in terms larger than “just” a cataclysmic storm. Think in terms of events that altered history, that obliterated cities. Think the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, or the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and then realize that this storm destroyed not just one major city, but an entire region, and did so in the poorest quadrant of the country.

There is another area in which Andrew and Katrina do not merit comparison: Government response. The day after I crawled from the wreckage of my home in 1992, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was there with water. Shortly thereafter came low-interest loans and other forms of help.

By contrast, a woman who saw me conducting interviews in Bogalusa, La., seven days after Katrina struck marched up and demanded to know if I was, finally, the man from FEMA because her house was split in two and she and her husband and children and grandchildren were sleeping on the porch.

President Bush – this would be the same President Bush who failed to react to the storm until two days after it hit – has promised to lead an investigation into the government’s laggard response. In other news, the fox has promised to lead an investigation into the slaughter at the henhouse.

Beg pardon, but we need to not play the usual games with this. That’s why I’m gladdened by recent news that Congress has grown a spine and has launching a bipartisan investigation of this tragedy and the botched relief effort that followed. Among the questions that desperately need answers:

It has long been widely known that flooding would bring catastrophe to New Orleans, a city of 484,000 that lies below sea level. What, if any, was the role of local, state and federal intransigence, incompetence or inertia in the failure to strengthen the levies on which the city counted for protection against disaster?

Where was FEMA? Did its incorporation into the Department of Homeland Security hamper its ability to respond quickly to this disaster?

Based on their performance in a natural disaster that had been forecast, why should Americans have confidence in FEMA’s or Homeland Security’s ability to react quickly to a surprise terrorist attack?

Why were the indigent, the infirm and the old left in the path of the storm?

These are just a few of the questions to which all of us should now be demanding full and forthright answers. We owe at least that much to the people who once lived here in the debris field where Waveland used to be.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His e-mail address is: [email protected]

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