I wish I had something profound and hopeful to write about Hurricane Katrina and the City – the people – of New Orleans. It’s been ten years now, and I’ll be damned if I can find anything to reflect on that doesn’t make me feel ashamed of my country.
I could go through the litany of ways every level of government failed our brothers and sisters in New Orleans, but what would be the point?
Instead I think I’ll tell you some things I’ve learned since August 29, 2005.
– Every major city in America is a short series of official mistakes from being part of the “Third World.” Your comfortable suburb and mine could look just like the Lower Ninth Ward if just a few bad things happen. The question is, will your state and the federal government send help for you? Or will CNN show up first and make you and your home the next iconic image of helplessness and despair? Let’s be clear: The United States government has the capacity and resources to save you and your family – and probably a lot of your stuff – if whoever is in charge when the shit hits the fan makes you a priority.
– New Orleans is now the “Third World.” George Bush did not prioritize the families of New Orleans, and they have not recovered. They will not recover. New Orleans will never be “The City That Care Forgot” again. Yeah, New Orleans had its problems before Katrina. Not like this.
– When disaster strikes, if your leaders consider /for one moment/ how their actions will affect their political careers, people will die. You might die. Ray Nagin, Kathleen Blanco and George Bush are case studies in this respect. And no, political leaders do not always act like those fools did. Great leaders prove themselves in time of crisis. The people of New Orleans were not fortunate enough to have one single great leader in the long chain of government officials.
– New Orleans is doomed. That’s something I used to think was part of the charm … you always knew disaster was right around the corner, but you hoped you’d have time to finish your drink before the reaper showed up. And if you didn’t have time you were pretty sure you could get a go-cup anyway. At least that’s the way /I/ always felt. The reality isn’t romantic or charming at all. The reaper won’t let you bring a go-cup. You will stand in line at the SuperDome with no food or water or you will camp in the August sunshine on the remains of an asphalt bridge. It’s going to happen again. We know now that the People In Charge knew very well that the levees would break before the levees broke. And we know that that they will break again when the next storm comes. We know that despite the best efforts of the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Mississippi River wants to reroute itself many miles West, far from the city. When those things happen, the devastation will be complete.
– It doesn’t have to be this way. We can choose to put people ahead of profit. We can say “no” to the idea that “Government should be small enough to be drowned in a bathtub.” We can take care of each other and we can all prosper. But if we choose to allow some to prosper and leave the rest to fend for themselves … we can all end up like our brothers and sisters in New Orleans.
Maybe that’s the closest thing I can find to “hopeful” in the wake of Katrina. We can do better. Will we? I can’t tell your that.
2005 was a big year for me. I became a mother, and I got married for the first time. Watching the horrors unfold in New Orleans fell as I held my infant son, and put the final touches on the wedding. I saw the images of the people in towns on their roofs, the houses completely envelloped in water, and the residents clinging for some shred of dignity.
“How can this be happening here? Aren’t we a big important country? Isn’t there more we can do? Or could have done?”
I tried to mentally block out the blame that passed around from agency to agency over the next months, but in some sense they were all guilty. They all failed those people in some way. Living in coastal Florida my entire existence, I cringe at the thought that we could be next. The next horrific images and stories you see on the news next of an American city underwater could be mine.
Shortly there after, people from the Biloxi area transferred to my work, because they were now out of jobs, and had nothing to go home to. I made friends with some, and they told me their stories.
There was no media embellishment there. They were as bad as you imagine.
In 2005, my family and I were living in Germany, where I was working for the Army. We had been there since 2002, but I had not managed to “settle in” and feel at home there. It was like I was on an extended vacation, except I had to work … a lot. A by-product of that is I felt like I was living in some netherworld: I didn’t really fit in in Germany, but I wasn’t in the U.S. either. We were finally able to get Sky TV out of the UK after almost a year, so we could watch English-language TV, but it was British TV. We had CNN, but it was CNN International. The only American news feed we had was Fox News. I know.
I still remember that day. Germany is 6 hours ahead of East Coast U.S. so that in itself can be disorienting. I want to say we found out about Katrina from CNN International. It was a nice, sunny day in Germany, which isn’t exactly the norm, even in August. So I turned to Fox to get the “hometown version.”
All I can say is that it was surreal. I was seeing Katrina through the eyes of a “foreigner,” but at the same time not: I had attended Loyola for a semester and a summer, and had been stationed there for 3 years. I knew East Bank from West Bank. Algiers. Ninth Ward. The French Quarter. The CBD. New Orleans East. Crescent City Connection. The Huey P. Long Bridge. My husband and I sat there in disbelief: watching how one of the most famous cities in the U.S. had devolved into little more than a Third World country. I sat there and watched while Shepard Smith (who’s from Mississippi, BTW), was actually /screaming/ on TV that people were dying on the Crescent City Connection because people were on the Gretna side of the bridge standing there with guns, threatening to shoot them if they even tried to enter Gretna for food and water. And another meltdown as he reported how children were being sexually molested in the SuperDome that had become a makeshift shelter for those who were unable to leave New Orleans for a myriad of reasons.
I sat there and watched the coverage hour after hour. Horrified, but unable to change the channel. Because somehow, I felt it was my /responsibility/ to watch this, so when I went back out into the community, I could attempt to explain to the Germans I regularly interacted with “our” side of the story. I watched people sitting on the roofs of their houses, which was the only thing above the water line, shooting at National Guard helicopters trying to rescue them. I listened while they described how old people in nursing homes had never been evacuated because there was no evacuation plan, so they just died in place. How people in hospitals were dying because there wasn’t sufficient auxiliary power to keep their life support systems going, or any coherent mass evacuation plan. How New Orleans police were breaking into luxury car dealerships and taking cars because “the police cruisers [were] underwater” or they “needed SUVs to navigate the flooded streets.”
All of a sudden “Laissez les bons temps rouler!” stopped being the battle cry of committed partiers and more a declaration of “We’re a bunch of clueless, careless idiots.”
And we won’t even discuss Mayor Ray Nagin surveying the devastation in designer suits and declaring New Orleans would arise as a “Chocolate City!”
I went to the coast of the panhandle after Katrina brushed by Florida. I was with two friends, and the normally clear water was murky with stirred up sand (and god-knows-what else). We could see there had been a storm surge. The usually brilliant white sand was covered with rotting dead fish and a few dead sharks. The smell of death and the dark, but gentle, waves of the Gulf were ominous. I took some photos of the beach, but not of the death or destruction. I’m not sure why.
I remember being relieved when I heard Katrina was only a Category 3 as it made landfall over the coast to the West of me. I had studied photographs of New Orleans before and after Camille, and thought the city would be spared a little.
And then, the levees broke. I hadn’t foreseen that. I had to go over to a friend’s house to watch TV, and the images and witness reports were horrific.
A year later, I found myself in New Orleans. We drove around the city, curious to see how it was recovering.
Parts of the city seemed unscathed. But right next to a beautiful home, there would be a house, boarded up, with spray paint on it, informing all it was too be demolished. The city was discombobulated. It was trying, but next to every effort were ashes or ruins.
We kept driving, and ended up in a middle class neighborhood. Something seemed amiss, though. It was evening, and there were no cars on the road or in the driveways. No lights were on inside the homes. There were no people walking on the sidewalk. I looked from my right to my left. To my right, there were houses. To the left, there was water that was higher than the houses.
All of this must have flooded. No one lived in these houses anymore. They were ruined. It was such an eerie, spooky feeling. The lake to the left of me no longer seemed scenic. The water, calm in the evening sun, was suddenly cruel; it was a destroyer of lives and dreams.
Some links I’ve found interesting:
Race and Recovery 10 Years After Hurricane Katrina
A Katrina Lexicon