President Bush smiles alongside Ethel Williams during a visit on April 27, 2006, to her hurricane-damaged home in the Upper 9th Ward of New Orleans. Volunteers helped tear out damaged walls and floors that day, but little rebuilding work has occurred since.
President Bush smiles alongside Ethel Williams during a visit on April 27, 2006, to her hurricane-damaged home in the Upper 9th Ward of New Orleans. Volunteers helped tear out damaged walls and floors that day, but little rebuilding work has occurred since. Eric Draper
This week was the anniversary of the day I lost one remarkable woman in my life, but gained another.
On April 27, 2006, my mother passed away suddenly. She had, and still has, an enormous influence over my career. She taught me that everyone has a story to tell. If someone seems to be in the background, don't overlook that person. Go find that story.
So I view it as no accident that hours before my mother passed, I first met Ethel Williams, a 74-year-old woman who was part of a presidential photo-op. I was covering President Bush's trip to New Orleans, eight months after Hurricane Katrina. Mrs. Williams was a resident of the devastated Upper 9th Ward whose house was all but wiped away by the storm. And the president stopped by.
"We're proud to be here with you, Mrs. Williams," the president said, "and God bless you."
"I'm proud to be here Mr. President," she replied. "I won't ever forget you."
The president told Mrs. Williams he'd help get her duplex rebuilt. She said she'd cook him a bowl of gumbo and dirty rice once she was back in her house.
Moments later, I was swept off with the rest of the White House entourage. We boarded Air Force One, headed back to Washington. That's when I found out about my mom.
I knew she would have told me to go back and find Mrs. Williams. And so I did, four months after the president met her. Mrs. Williams' house was still a pile of debris.
All you could recognize was the bathroom, because there was still a toilet and tub. Everything was just a mess. Mrs. Williams was living across the river from New Orleans with her daughter.
I expected to find an angry woman. What I found was a woman who still had faith that Bush, whatever the holdup, would find a way to get her house rebuilt.
She told me, "I'm going to prove it to you. Before you leave, you let me know how to get in touch with you, I'm gonna call you."
"What are you gonna say to me?" I asked her.
"I'm in my house, that the president got for me."
She never lost faith. Not that day, not as many more months passed.
She was a living reminder to me never to make assumptions about people. She was a powerful reminder of the personal face of politics.
Here's how Ethel Williams' story ended. Her home was rebuilt, thanks in large part to federal recovery money. This past January, more than three years after the hurricane, the rebuilding project was finished.
But it was too late. Ethel Williams had grown ill and died of cancer. She would never see her house. But she lives on in my memory and in my work.