Remarks by Senator Edward M. Kennedy

Today we honor two individuals who are impressive examples of courage, grace, and leadership. As we all know, a tragedy of unspeakable scope and impact decimated America’s Gulf Coast region in 2005. Hurricane Katrina was the deadliest storm to ever hit America, claiming over 1800 lives. It was also the costliest. The repairs and rebuilding are estimated to cost over $81 billion and that number will undoubtedly rise.

Those numbers alone are shocking, but they do not begin to reveal the vast devastation that the storm has inflicted on the families of Louisiana and Mississippi. In one cruel day, families were separated, homes were lost, schools and businesses swept away. Countless lives were disrupted, and many more were destroyed forever.

There are far too many examples of the inept and ineffective response by state and federal agencies. But there are other examples too – examples of courage, compassion and generosity that inspire us. The Coast Guard, National Guard, and other response teams rescued countless families. Medical and emergency teams jeopardized their own safety to save people’s lives.

It is in the spirit of these selfless and courageous men and women, that we recognize two public servants who made an extraordinary difference in the lives of so many deserving families during that tragic time.

Doris Voitier has been a compelling presence in her community for over twenty-five years. Her passion is her classroom, and she has worked brilliantly over the years to improve education for the children of St. Bernard Parish. She was Superintendent of Schools when Katrina came ashore.

She rode out the storm in Chalmette High School, having rushed there to save records and equipment as the storm approached. With a small group of staff and twelve hundred others, she waited for four days for the first rescue team to arrive.

She vowed that the children of St. Bernard would have classrooms waiting for them when they returned. Against all odds, with little or no help from officials and few resources, she persisted, and she succeeded.

Two months after the storm, the first school opened to welcome students back to St. Bernard. The healing began, and without the selfless dedication of Doris, it might not have been possible. Others would have found that the challenge was too overwhelming, but Doris knew that the schools were critical for the recovery of the community, and she never gave up. She’s an inspiration to us all.

At the same time, several hundred miles away, refugees from Katrina were arriving in Houston. Exhausted by their travel, they arrived in a strange city, with only no personal belongings except those they were able to carry. The people of Houston opened their city and their hearts to them. Under the leadership of Mayor Bill White, municipal resources were mobilized – cots were set up in the Astrodome. Food, clothing and medical care were provided. It wasn’t home but it was safe.

Mayor White didn’t stop with a warm welcome. He offered a way for families to move on to new lives. The city provided vouchers for housing, job fairs and a chance to start anew. Under his leadership, a coordinated effort began, and church, civic leaders, the regional business community, citizens and volunteers worked together to provide the help they needed.

As the months passed, Mayor White endured sharp attacks for his efforts from the naysayers. But he also earned the praise of countless civic leaders for the bold steps he took in one of the most innovative humanitarian efforts in the nation’s history. He also earned the deep gratitude of tens of thousands of refugees who had new lives and new hope.

The mayor is an excellent example of public service at its best. By his example he has demonstrated what America can be at her best. We are all deeply indebted to him.

I know that President Kennedy would have admired both of our honorees. He believed that public service was an essential part of our national life. As he once said, “Our problems are man-made – therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable – and we believe they can do it again.” Our honorees today affirm his belief in the power of visionary leaders – who are as big as they need to be when destiny calls.

I commend Doris Voitier and Bill White for all they accomplished in such a difficult moment, and when so many others faltered. They have worked miracles already, and I know that they will produce even more in the years ahead. Our nation is a better place because of them.

Delivered by Senator Edward M. Kennedy at the 2007 Profile in Courage Awards, May 21, 2007.

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