The Wounds of Katrina

Article excerpt

Byline: Condoleezza Rice

My trip home to heal a racially charged disaster.

I'd been to forty-six countries and traveled 171,628 miles in nine months. I just wanted a vacation and took my annual trip to the Greenbrier, but it wasn't much of a vacation, given the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which kept me on the phone day and night. I did, though, pick up a golf club seriously for the first time that summer when my cousin's husband, a very good golfer, insisted that Lativia and I learn to play. I loved it, especially just being outside, and vowed to keep the ball moving forward while I was in Washington. Really learning to play would have to await my return to California. Fortunately, I would find Alan Burton, the pro at Andrews Air Force Base, who'd help me learn the game far faster than I ever thought possible. I'll always remember that August for discovering a new passion, not for the vacation, which signaled how hard it would be to get away as secretary of state.

Since any opportunity to break away from the daily grind was appealing, when friends asked if I'd like to join them in New York for the US Open tennis championships the last few days in August, I readily agreed. As I'd done a couple of years before, I planned to spend a few days in New York City, take in a show, shop, and then go out to Arthur Ashe Stadium for the championships. Mariann Byerwalter and Randy Bean, two of my closest friends from California, were coming out to join me.

I didn't think much about the dire warnings of an approaching hurricane called Katrina. My under secretary for management, Henrietta Fore, was on top of the State Department issues. The State Department had a passport office in New Orleans, and we made backup arrangements for our people in Houston. I attended a Homeland Security principals meeting on Thursday, August 30, and returned to the State Department to check once more on plans for securing our offices in the Gulf of Mexico. Then I flew to New York.

That evening, upon arriving at the Palace Hotel, I flipped on the television. Indeed, the hurricane had hit New Orleans. I called Henrietta, who said that the main issue was making sure our people were safe. She'd also convened a departmental task force because offers of foreign assistance were pouring in. I called Secretary of Homeland Security Mike Chertoff, inquiring if there was anything I could do. "It's pretty bad," he said. We discussed the question of foreign help briefly, but Mike was clearly in a hurry. He said he'd call if he needed me. I hung up, got dressed, and went to see Spamalot.

The next morning, I went shopping at the Ferragamo shoe store down the block from my hotel, returned to the Palace to await Randy and Mariann's arrival, and again turned on the television. The airwaves were filled with devastating pictures from New Orleans. And the faces of most of the people in distress were black. I knew right away that I should never have left Washington. I called my chief of staff, Brian Gunderson. "I'm coming home," I said.

"Yeah. You'd better do that," he answered.

Then I called the President. "Mr. President, I'm coming back. I don't know how much I can do, but we clearly have a race problem," I said.

"Yeah. Why don't you come on back?" he answered.

I actually hadn't expected that from the President. That's odd, I thought. He'd been so insistent that I go and get some rest. He's really worried. "Maybe I can go to Houston to represent you," I said.

"Well, just come on back, and we can talk about it then," he replied.

A few minutes later, my senior advisor, Jim Wilkinson, walked into my suite. "Boss, I should have seen this coming," he said. He showed me the day's Drudge Report headline on the Web: "Eyewitness: Sec of State Condi Rice laughs it up at 'Spamalot' while Gulf Coast lays in tatter." "Get a plane up here to take me home," I said. I called Mariann and Randy and apologized and then sat there kicking myself for having been so tone-deaf. …