Thursday, October 25, 2007

The New Orleans Saints

No, this is not going to be about the football team—this post is going to be about the REAL New Orleans Saints—all the people who suffered through the devastation of Katrina, and stayed around to rebuild, and all the people who have gone to New Orleans to help the city recover.

There is a palpable difference between the Katrina recovery efforts in Mississippi and in New Orleans. Many factors contribute to that difference, and it is obvious that politics has played a significant role in that recovery. Immediately after Katrina had blown through the area, the governor of Mississippi was in contact with Washington DC. Perhaps you recall that the governor is Haley Barbour, formerly chair of the Republican National Committee. He received promises of aid from the White House that seemingly set a benchmark for federal aid.

You have no doubt heard of how dysfunctional New Orleans’ and Louisiana’s politicians were immediately before and after the storm. When they finally got around to requesting federal aid, they expected, reasonably, a level of response equal to what Mississippi got. Of course, the extent of damage was so much greater in New Orleans, and the White House balked. So the actual dollars, on a per capita basis, tracking to Louisiana for recovery is far lower than the funds that went to Mississippi.

Understandably, residents of New Orleans are deeply suspicious of the various government forces. This week’s election of a new governor in Louisiana bears testament to that. A young woman who drove me to the airport also bore testament to it—she said she can’t help but think that the government ALLOWED the levees to fail!

That’s enough said about the impact of politics on the recovery efforts. Money is the engine that drives the recovery machine.

After our visit to Mississippi, we drove around parts of New Orleans to see the damage. There is a seeming air of normalcy as you drive through neighborhoods, until you begin to look carefully and closely up and down streets. Apartment complexes stand empty—row after row of buildings that have been mucked out and the resulting pile of debris sits at the edge of a sidewalk. No rebuilding has gone on partly due to lack of finances for large scale reconstruction. So apartment complexes are devoid of life—no cars, no bikes, no kids.

Our next stop was a home dedication in New Orleans East. If you look at the map (see end of this post) of the section that we visited, and increase the resolution, you see a lot of blue—those are NOT swimming pools. Those are blue tarps slung over roofs that were damaged when Katrina winds ripped away the tiles.

New Orleans East was long outside the city of New Orleans’ limits, but in the early 20th century people began to build permanent homes there, as suburbs spread out. Initially, it was planned to be an area for wealthier whites, but they moved elsewhere, so middle class African-Americans, escaping poor areas in the downtown, moved there.

A combination of the effect of Hurricane Katrina itself, and the resulting breeching of the levees, caused much of the area to flood and with it the homes. The rebuilt home that we went to help dedicate was one such place. This place is now the home of Carol and Rudy. When Katrina hit, they were living elsewhere, and their home at that time was a single story home that was flooded with 11 feet of water in it. It was damaged beyond repair. So they were moved into a FEMA trailer. They tried to rebuild a semblance of their former lives, but the situation simply overwhelmed them. By his own words, Rudy suffered a near break-down. He would go to his sister-in-law’s house, and say—I just can’t stay in that trailer anymore.

The sister-in-law lived in New Orleans East, and nearby her place was a storm damaged house for sale. This house had 18 inches of water inside it, so it could be rehabbed. Here is where PDA stepped in. Because Carol and Rudy met the financial criteria, they qualified for rebuilding assistance. After they bought the house, and it was gutted, Rudy, still unable to stand staying in the trailer, would go into his new but damaged house and just sit on the floor.

In a city that had 80 % of its land mass flooded, that had 90 % of its resident evacuated, that had most of its protective levees breached which caused the majority of the flooding—in this city, it was a moment of sweet grace to stand in Carol and Rudy’s home. We gathered there, volunteers, visitors, Carol and Rudy and some of their family members—joining hands and singing “Amazing Grace.”

Thank goodness I have this image to replace the negative ones that haunt me: people stranded on roof tops, pleading to be rescued; people hacking their way out of their attics using axes they had placed there in a prior hurricane; pets wandering totally abandoned because their owners were forbidden to take them along; thousands gathered at the Superdome begging for someone, anyone to rescue them; police standing on the Gretna Bridge firing shots over the heads of people fleeing New Orleans; Michael Chertoff blithely responding on the evening news that he was unaware of a problem at the Superdome; President Bush standing in front of St. Louis Cathedral bathed in white light with no one around.

Amazing grace?—you bet. The deliverers of that grace are the true New Orleans’ saints—the people who survived and are rebuilding, and the volunteers from church organizations and from other organizations who come to help.

This statue of the Virgin Mary stands outside Rudy & Carol's new home

This is the last post on my visit to New Orleans and Mississippi. As I write this, I am listening to Fresh Air with Terri Gross interviewing Terence Blanchard who wrote music called "A Requiem for Katrina" to accompany Spike Lee's film A Tale of God's Will. And, of course, currently in the news are the fires in California, where 1 million people have fled their homes. Perhaps the lessons of Katrina will help others in disasters.
Map of New Orleans East--click on + to increase resolution and see blue tarp roofs

View Larger Map


Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

Thanks for your insights of what is or is not being achieved in New Orleans. One of the big differences with California is that Louisiana is ranked as the most corrupt state in the US. Government is dysfunctional if it calls for an evacuation and then let a train leave thr city empty and buses sit unused in an urban area where their are lots of people without transportation. California has lots of experience with disaster planning and it an area with a car driving culture.

Jean said...

Oh my gosh!

Ruth said...

What a heart-warming post. Those of us not affected by this disaster quickly forget the ongoing struggles of people who have to rebuild their lives.

Cathy said...

Donna, it's so easy for those of us hgh and dry in our comfortable lives and living rooms to forget the tragedy that shattered so many lives. Your posts do reaffirm my faith that they're are good people who don't forget and do what they can to bring the downtrodden forward with the rest of us.

dguzman said...

Also remember that Mississippi has Trent Lott (R-acist) to get those govt dollars. Louisiana doesn't have anyone in the power-machine to argue for them. It's sad.

I admire your courage and determination to help out down there. Thanks for the insight into the situation.