Jeremy Broussard was helping to load minivans with bags of clothes and food that had been donated for victims of Hurricane Katrina. The drop-off site was the Howard University Law School in Northwest Washington, where he is a second-year student and vice president of his class.
He began organizing the relief effort even before the hurricane made landfall and was still at it Monday, after learning that his home in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward had been destroyed by floodwaters.
"I'm sure there'll come a time when the reality of it all hits me and I'll break down," said Broussard, 28. "But now is not the time."
Now was the time for courage, not hopelessness and despair. In an obvious show of optimism, he wore a T-shirt bearing the insignia of the New Orleans Saints, a hard-luck football team whose home -- the Superdome -- was a designated storm shelter-turned-national symbol of man's inhumanity to man.
"This could be our year," he said of the Saints. "You never know."
Broussard was the can-do spirit personified. Before coming to Howard, he was an Army ROTC cadet and political science major at Hampton University in Virginia. After graduating first in his class in 1999, he was commissioned as a field artillery officer, attended airborne school at Fort Benning, Ga., and was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., before being deployed to Iraq.
"One of the most important lessons I learned in the Army is that you'd be surprised at how much you can do if you just do it," he said.
Ironically, federal officials responsible for emergency preparedness had not learned the lesson. The response to the catastrophe was halfhearted and disintegrated into a blame game. None of the officials showed the kind of leadership that Broussard had come to value as an Army officer, and he is horrified at the prospect that many of his neighbors may have lost their lives because of incompetence and ineptitude.
"I read the warnings in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and immediately began e-mailing people from Louisiana who live in the Washington area," Broussard recalled. "The newspaper predicted that Katrina was powerful enough to destroy the city. . . . Nobody should have been surprised."
The Times-Picayune forecast updated a series that ran in 2002 and began with the now prophetic headline: "In Harms Way: Levees, our best protection from flooding, may turn against us."
Broussard said the disaster would not have been as severe had it not been for "the Bush ideology," which he believes feeds the greed of the rich instead of the needs of the poor.
"I believe," he said, "we are witnessing the impact of that ideology in New Orleans, where there has been a whirlwind of suffering caused by a lack of federal funds for flood prevention and a stunning indifference to that suffering by those government officials who withheld the funds."
The son of two lawyers, Broussard grew up in a relatively affluent part of the Lower 9th Ward. He attended prestigious schools, such as Jesuit High School, and never wanted for the essentials in life. As the hurricane approached, his parents packed up and fled to Baton Rouge, where they rode out the storm at the home of an aunt.
His family assumed that those who were left behind would be protected, Broussard said, adding that he won't make that mistake again.
"I always knew that we had a really large segment of the population that was poor in New Orleans," he said. "But we never really came into contact with them. It never really registered how desperate their lives could be, what it meant to live from hand to mouth. Now, after seeing how they were left behind, I can no longer look at people as rich and poor. We are all Americans.
"If the less-fortunate need health care, they should get it. If they need food, we should give it. And if the rich have to give up some of their tax cuts to make it happen, so be it."