It seems like only yesterday that I watched the destruction of a great American city, a great WORLD city, with stultifying disbelief. In almost real time, I watched how we all allowed the social contract that binds us together as a nation be trampled on or ignored. I watched as governmental agencies at every level exhibited new lows in craven self-preservation at the expense of real solutions and dedicated leadership.
I am willing to bet, however, that for a great many, the ensuing 24 months since Hurricane Katrina demolished the Gulf Coast have passed with interminable inertia. While most of us have moved on in our culture of the unrelenting news cycle, far too many of the one million Americans displaced by the storm have keenly felt every day, every week, every month crawl by as they wait for…for…what?
Two years on, the bungling and the malfeasance at the Federal level have been reduced to so much glib background chatter. “Heckuva job, Brownie” has become a pithy Leno-friendly punch line, instead of a call for HEADS TO ROLL. Stories on semi-trucks full of ice warehoused for months at a cost to YOU AND ME are tossed into the news as a way to get our dander up for a minute or two before an end story about a waterskiing dog. We shrug at incompetence and negligence that would be comical if there still weren’t bodies to be identified because of it.
A couple of us on the Habitat for Humanity crew returned to New Orleans recently. It was hot. ANGRY hot. The French Quarter, well, that didn’t suffer much damage and it’s been able to re-build its vibe of a Sigma Chi mixer with humidity pretty easily. It’s just a bit emptier. Some of the neighborhoods are doing well, while others still lay in absolute ruin. A Times-Picayune article I read while I was there claimed that the population of Orleans Parish was now around 46% of pre-storm levels. The area where we worked in St Bernard’s Parish is far from being a working community and far from those percentages. The infrastructure is still shattered, there is no retail (and thus no employment) to speak of. None of the houses we worked on are inhabited. They remain boarded up or have been torn down. For every homeowner returning and making a go of it (with a determination I can only marvel at), there are two or three vacant lots where a once prosperous middle class home has been demolished.
I write this a few days after some of the most powerful storms to ever hit my city of Chicago caused widespread damage and flooding. The local news had a grand time documenting “nature’s power” and for days the media was churning out stories of destruction and human interest angles at a fevered pitch.
Yes, it was bad and a lot of people suffered real and not insignificant damage, but, as we mark this shameful anniversary, it’s been hard to watch a woman in Wilmette sobbing on the news about her newly finished basement that had 3-4 inches of water in it and “everything’s ruined.” Everything? Trees were blocking roads and stoplights lost power, the commute home was “murder.” Perhaps this seemed less a problem in New Orleans as all the cars were washed away thus solving any traffic problems. Other complaints from exasperated Chicagolanders that got play in the media included "we've had to spend over $100 in two days on generators and fuel” and “I keep having to drive to the supermarket for ice or all my food will spoil.” One thing I HAVEN’T heard is anyone blaming these people for living where they do. One thing I doubt I will see is anyone around here waiting two years for problems to even begin getting addressed.
I point this out not to be cold-hearted or flip. My basement flooded last November and caused several thousand dollars in damage. It sucks. It’s dirty and nasty and lots of things get ruined. But we need to keep a perspective. Let’s use storms like this to increase our empathy for people still living without power or running water or in a crappy government trailer. Without their neighbors, without their culture and social networks that make us what we are. And in that heat. Let’s not forget.
Let's put aside conditions before the storm. Hell, let's even put aside the reaction during and immediately after the storm, when hundreds were dying sad, neglectful deaths. Let us, however, NOT ignore the reconstruction, how OUR government works. As a taxpayer, are you happy with the results? Over $100 billion spent so far? On what? Whose pockets is it in? Have our interests and compassion as a nation been duly represented?
All the stories on Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Saints make us feel good, but ignore the sad and brutal truth that a great American city was demolished and we have done precious little, have DEMANDED precious little, about it.
Where is the much vaunted, can-do american spirit?
Is this message we care to send people, here and abroad? Instead of rolling up our sleeves and taking care of people, instead of bringing to bear the kind of engineering wherewithal that did such unthinkable things as build canals and railroads and spacecrafts, we bicker, cover our asses, point fingers and move on to giving one tenth of a shit for Paris Hilton and her deplorable ilk?
God Bless America, indeed.
New Orleans, our apologies but we are too busy wringing our hands over who will get Anna Nicole's baby and what the "Astro-nut" had on her mind during her diaper-wearing, cross-country jaunt. Forgive us our priorities. There are all manner of fluffy outrages we choose obsess about. It's so much easier than asking the hard questions and looking in the mirror when we don’t like the answers.
And now Michael Chertoff’s name is being bandied around as our next Attorney General?
Following is Rob's original piece. It was entitled "Eight Months Later."
I have never met Billy and Barbie Dunne or their young daughters, Kristen and Katie, nor am I ever likely to, but this is how I got to know them.
After having pummeled South Florida on August 25, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made its second landfall in the area of Buras-Triumph, Louisiana on August 29th, 2005. By the time it struck the Gulf coast area of the United States it had diminished in intensity from a Category 5 to a Category 3 storm, but this dimunition of power provided cold comfort to the citizens of the area. The storm and its direct effects constitute the largest natural disaster in our country’s history, and have since reverberated throughout our political system and our sense of what it means to be a society, a community, a neighborhood. Having spent many memorable (and some boozily forgotten) times in my dissolute youth haunting the nether aspects of New Orleans (always, always leaving the commodified depravity of the French Quarter to the ginned up businessmen), it was with more than a little horror and disbelief that I watched the events after Katrina (now widely known locally as "that bitch" or, simply, "the storm") unfold. The area I loved, whose food, music, and social olio have made an incalculable impact on our culture, was suffering a staggering, unimaginable doom right in front of us on primetime TV.
Eight months later, the Katrina aftermath had largely disappeared from our consciousness and we as a nation settled comfortably back into the drone and apathy of everyday life. Our collective desire to believe an illusion of recovery rather than accept painful reminders of a governmental collapse thrust in our faces at dinnertime saw us gladly lapping up news of Tom Cruise’s oddly-named baby. Pundits vigorously and glibly came to impossible snap conclusions to buoy pre-existing agendas. Bothered by what I had been seeing and hearing in the media (and, more to the point, what I HADN’T been seeing), I thought it time to pony up my construction skills, see the situation firsthand and re-pay a city that has given me so much.
I volunteered for a stint with Habitat for Humanity. The assignment: gutting homes in St. Bernard Parish in suburban New Orleans. I had no idea what I would find there. With a popular media geared to dramatize and polarize, and with leaders at all levels intent on hysterical, finger-pointing self-preservation, the truth felt like it too had been washed away.
What I saw in St. Bernard Parish shook me profoundly. Immediately, it became impossible to view the response to this catastrophe as some abstract policy decision. There were immense and far-reaching human implications. It begs us to question the functions of government and society, and to examine our responsibilities to our neighbors. This is not about the politics of WHY the disaster happened---even a casual examination of history shows most of the reasons were decades in the making. It’s also too easy to get bogged down in hackneyed excuses that inoculate us from taking action. Insinuations of good ol’ Southern corruption ("that’s the way they do things down there"), an inept mayor, marauding, opportunistic looters, the Barbara Bush mentality of "these people didn’t have much to lose anyway" were all used with a knowing wink to absolve us of responsibility. If we push these handy excuses aside, if we stop tacitly blaming the victim, we are FORCED to react: it is impossible to tamp down the outrage.
By telling people what I saw and what I did it St. Bernard Parish, I hope to strip away all this static, to dispel the misperceptions of the comfortably uninformed and aggressively ill-informed, to put it on a scale that might resonate with us and re-focus our energies and priorities.
Eight months later, most peoples lives are still an emotional tangle of recovery, demolition and entropy. There are maddening bureaucratic hoops to jump through on a daily basis and precious little actual rebuilding. Eight months after the storm, what does it say about us if convenient amnesia and complacency end up as the legacy of Katrina?
St. Bernard Parish is 5 miles as the pelican flies southeast of downtown New Orleans. Other than the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, the parish, surrounded on three sides by swamps and bayous, remained an isolated and undistinguished place. The 1960’s saw rapid and significant growth from industrial development, the opening of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) and the subsequent suburban sprawl. Its pre-Katrina population hovered in the 60,000 range, predominantly solid lower-middle to middle class families in neighborhoods of modest brick houses, nearby strip malls of Popeye’s and supermarkets and Dress Barns and banks. In other words, middle America. If it weren’t for the humidity and alligators, you could be anywhere in this country. It was neither the desperately poor blacks of the lower 9th ward or the backwoods Cajun characters so polemically covered by the press
These days, the New Orleans area is two different worlds. The drowsy charms of the Garden District remain largely intact. Jazz and Heritage Fest goers roamed the Quarter with their fanny packs, Panama hats, faded Professor Longhair T-shirts and lobster red faces. Expense account-heavy businessmen still partake in id-centric, loutish behavior that would be inexcusable, if not illegal, back home. Art openings, to-go drinks in enormous novelty cups, street musicians and public drunkenness are still in abundance. There are some signs of change - new storefronts on Bourbon Street include clubs run by Barely Legal, Penthouse, Hustler and something called Bourbon Cowboy, where, from what I could tell, really loud really bad music provides the soundtrack for tan-from-a-bottle, chest-from-a-doctor women riding mechanical bulls on a stage flooded by a seizure inducing light show. In short, it was still the French Quarter. If it weren’t for ubiquitous T-shirts like "FEMA Evacuation Plan: Run Motherfucker Run" or "FEMA: Federal Emergency, My Ass," "Make Levee, Not War" and, god help us all, "I Survived Katrina and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt," one could walk around the Quarter and not know anything had ever happened.
But I wasn’t working in the French Quarter…
To get to St. Bernard Parish every morning we had to drive through the 9th ward, the poster-child area for the storm’s aftermath, the scene of the most dramatic pictures, of the direst poverty. Parts of the ward looked no worse than Detroit (bad enough, to be sure): the abandoned homes, piles of garbage on street corners, boarded up businesses are emblematic of any wrecked inner city in our country. The lower 9th ward, however, was largely…gone. It’s a cliché to say that television cannot capture the scope of a disaster, but clichés can be clichés for a reason. This was Old Testament kind of destruction. Whole neighborhoods swatted away as if by a malevolent giant hand. Everything seemed to be dead--magnolias, lawns (junk weeds taking over), shrubs, gardens. Most trees, at a time when New Orleans usually would be exploding with color and fragrance, were just leafless skeletons.
Eight months after the storm, crossing into St Bernard’s, there were still no stop lights (stop signs were propped up by debris in intersections), no streetlights and100 year old trees still lying were they fell. The only indication of anyone showing any interest were the dozens of flyers stapled to any remaining light pole or boarded up window reading "We Buy Houses," "Affordable Roofing," "Need Mold Remediation?"
When Katrina hit, St. Bernard Parish took the brunt. Abetted by MRGO, which funneled the storm’s energy into the heart of the parish, the area saw storm surges of up to 25 feet---TWENTY FIVE FEETand large sections of the area remained 8-14 feet of water for weeks. The onrush was so sudden and severe one man told me his house went from dry to nine feet of water in 30 minutes. One after-storm assessment reported that two houses (yes, you read that right) were undamaged by the flooding. Billy and Barbie Dunne’s house was not one of them.
During our training session, a great deal of time was spent identifying the dizzying array of hazards we could encounter on the job site. In addition to solvents, cleaners, and other obvious household chemicals, we had to keep an eye out for snakes ("water moccasinsthey’ll kill you, cottonmouths--they won’t kill you but you’ll be real sick, king snakes---they won’t hurt you, they’ll just scare you"), brown recluse spiders ("they’ll kill you"), and rats. Photos were projected in larger-than-life fashion for us to contemplate. I’ve never had to consider if my work boots would resist a venomous snake strike before. Since we’d be putting ourselves in cramped, dark, damp corners and closets all day long, they thought we should know this.
Mention was also made of the dozens of people still missing from the parish and what to do should we come across human remains. Eight months later…
Our team of 10 volunteers came from all over the country and ranged in age from their mid-twenties to mid-fifties. Among our group was an architect and a closet organizer from San Diego, journalists from New Jersey, a special education teacher from Washington DC, an IT guy from Virginia, a music writer from Chicago and myself, a small business owner and former house painter and carpenter. We all came with different abilities, experience, knowledge of buildings, construction (and destruction), and capabilities to do hard, dirty work under tough, grinding conditions. Individual reasons for being there varied as broadly as our backgrounds---some were pissed at the administration, some loved New Orleans, some wanted to cut through the tangle of media and see the damage themselves, and some just saw people in need and a chance to help. One thing bonded us together, though, and that was a sense of common purpose and a recognition that something BIG was at stake, that there was a society-wide moral failing with what was happening there. Without exception, the volunteers displayed enormous heart. And heart was needed.
We knew whose house we were beginning to gut because "Billy and Barbie" and a phone number (Houston area code) were spray painted on the front of the house. The front door was gone. After making sure all the utilities were off and the house was structurally sound, we carefully stepped over and onto, and into, the wreckage and entered. Nothing can prepare you for the sensory and emotional assault of walking into a home that had been stewing underwater for weeks, and subsequently untouched, in the semi-tropical heat for six months. The devastation is literally shocking.
When the floodwaters receded from the Dunne’s home, the sodden sheetrock from ceilings collapsed, uniformly covering the interior with a disgusting, disintegrating top layer. Underneath lay alluvial deposits of the rotted and still soaking possessions of a family, the fetid remains of lives suddenly and irrevocably destroyed. The sedimentary detritus took on the feel of a dispiriting archeological dig.
The gutting process began by picking a section and methodically turning household into debris. Pick it up, shovel it up, pry it loose, throw it in a wheelbarrow and take it to the pile next to the street. Repeat. Hundreds of times. The physicality of it alone was deflating. The visual, tactile and olfactory sensations, despite the respirator, heavy gloves and goggles, came at us in a rush. The smell suspended in the thick air was an unforgettable stew of 70% mold, 20% rot, 5% shit and 5% dead.
On a kitchen corkboard, there were yellowed and brittle notices for school meetings still hanging, somehow, alongside pizza delivery numbers and, ironically, an emergency phone numbers list. Jars of caked sugar or baking powder, moldering spice canisters---whiffs of nutmeg mixed with the swampy, sulfurous water; a shelf of cookbooks so waterlogged they were fused into a single pulpy mess, so heavy the shelf sagged. Both sink and dishwasher, half full of dirty dishes, spoke of the suddenness of the devastation and the interruption of life. Tables, chairs and buffet were all driven into the corner when the force of the water blew out the picture window. Pots, pans, measuring cups, Little Mermaid sippy cups and glasses full of fetid, toxic swamp water spilled out of the cabinets. The pantry was a dank jumble of anonymous swollen canned goods, putrescent boxes of dinosaur shaped mac and cheese, pickle jars, slushy, rank bags that used to be bread or noodles or rice or oatmeal, the top shelf with its half empty bottles of vodka, brandy and schnapps, the bottom shelf with its bags of kitty litter and cat food---now the consistency of partially dried cement. The refrigerator had to be immediately sealed with duct tape and hauled out. If it accidentally opened, even for a moment, the job site would be unworkable for the rest of the day. Another crew down the block made that mistake and they spilled out of their house gagging and retching. They were done for the day. The abominable odor, even coming from a few hundred yards away hit us like a year old rotten egg the size of a school bus. Behind the dishwasher, we uncovered a nest (Gaggle? Clutch? Herd?) of water moccasins. Very aggressive, very poisonous. With the help of a sheriff’s deputyif one was in the neighborhood, we’d corner the snakes, hold them down with rakes, and chop their heads off with shovels. And then we’d keep working.
Digging through the debris, the family’s life was laid uncomfortably bare for us. Like many of us, the Dunne’s had an exercise bike banished to the attic. There was also evidence of the universal and ongoing battle married couples wage for the aesthetic soul of a home. Among the attic exiles, Billy’s artifacts from younger and wilder days: beer logo mirrors and framed posters of models draped on shiny sports cars. Maybe after they bought the new living room set, the mirrors and posters were taken down and moved to a back closet. Then, when the kids came, up to the attic they went. Perhaps Billy had notions of someday having a den or a workroom where he could have put them back on display---that is, if Barbie hadn’t already snuck them into a garage sale or, more boldly, thrown them out.
There were also the boxes that spoke to the better times, the accumulated artifacts of holidays and histories that cement families together, that define them almost (funny how these things so often in the attic with the junk), photo albumssome soaked, some inexplicably dry, Christmas ornaments, wooden lawn angels with the girls’ names on them, baby clothes, Halloween costumes (ballerina, witch) and decorations (including an oversized, furry bouncing spider on a string that gave me quite the jolt of adrenaline when it fell out of the box) both a "Baby’s First Christmas " ornament and Barbie’s high school diploma plucked from the insulation in a gable, a jar of volcanic ash from a trip to Mt. St. Helen’s, some wildly out of style clothes, and the wedding dress, sealed in plastic but still covered in a foul smelling mold. One box contained nothing but rotted schoolbooks and dozens of thumb sized cockroaches that scattered in a frenzy when I lifted it.
Much of it became anonymous debris; it had to. The nature and enormity of the work did not allow for gentle removal or introspection; it could become paralyzing if you ascribed too much to a particular remnant---even a moldy towel embroidered with "this kitchen seasoned with love" would take on a somber resonance if you let it. We HAD to push it from our minds that we were ignominiously hauling the sum total of a family’s life to a growing garbage dump.
It was tough, though, not to feel it when I was pulling a "World’s Greatest Dad" coffee mug, a Sponge Bob cereal bowl, a disintegrating stuffed horse, a collector’s plate from a family vacation spot (Disney World, Cape Kennedy), a "Finding Nemo" DVD, or one of Katie’s ballerina trophies from the stinking muck, and the retched smell of the clothes in the kids closets (they’d been stored in plastic tubs, holding in all that water) is something I will not soon forget. We even kept finding wall clocks frozen at the same time, a ready-made contrivance for life coming to an abrupt halt.
It was tough when, on our first day, my work partner and I (everyone worked in pairs due to that laundry list of hazards) found the desiccated remains of the family cat in the kitchen sinkthe smell led us to it. We told the Habitat For Humanity people to tell the family we found their pet and that we had buried it. The blunt, and necessary, truth was that we put it in a box we found and tossed it onto the debris pile without making a fuss or letting anyone else on the crew know; something like that might rattle people out of their numbed state and disrupt the work.
It was tough when we would take our lunch or water breaks (under any available shade---usually the wrecked car port next door) and the only sounds we’d hear were the rustling of dead palm fronds or what few leaves might be left on a battered cypress tree. All those homes with yards, driveways and swing sets were so persistently and disconcertingly quiet. No birds, no cars, no children playing, no (usually annoying) hum of A/C units and, more tellingly, no nail guns, circular saws or air compressors---nothing denoting rebuilding. There was the inescapable vibe of one of those post-nuclear "Twilight Zone" episodes, a nagging "Where is everybody?"
Dismantling the Dunne’s life, finishing the work the storm began, was an intensely humanizing and grounding experience. It put the incomprehensible scale of the disaster into sharp perspective. As we carried the remains of their household bit by bit to the trash heap, we could not help but bond to them. The team quickly developed a proprietary feeling towards "our" family and, by the end of the first day, we were calling them by their first names. We spoke of them with increasingly familiarity at breaks, as if they were in the next room. Some gallows humor even took hold. We marveled at Barbie’s vast shoe collection, groused about their fondness for heavy cast iron pans, and snarkily critiqued the DVD and CD collections. Mostly, though, it was done with a steadfast respect and awareness of the damage done. It was always hard to shake the feeling of being invasive, of violating their privacy and we had also come to be fiercely protective of them.
Every morning when the teams got on the bus for the ride to job sites, spirits were reliably high. Despite the heat, arduous labor and Sisyphean feelings that plagued us, there was a palpable sense of accomplishment, of being in the trenches offering visible help, of being part of history. There were jokes, camaraderie and friendly rivalries.
For those couple of miles, the itching from fiberglass, the purplish puncture wounds from exposed nails, the sore muscles, the persistent coughs we were developing (Katrina Kough, we were told), were subsumed by the our belief that we were making a difference.
A funny thing happened every day on the way into the neighborhoods, however. Absurd and appalling sites abounded everywhere we looked (again….eight months later) like a chest freezer on a garage roof, boats wrapped around trees, a toilet bowl on a street corner, front steps leading to now non-existent houses, a pickup truck resting vertically against a wall, "tow me" spray painted on its hood, a box car that floated onto (not into) a McDonald’s, a chest of drawers standing miraculously upright on an otherwise empty lot, entire houses washed from their foundations and left in the middle of streets, rows of storage units with their contents exploded onto the road, empty civic buildingsthe anchors of any community (libraries, schools, post offices), still sealed houses with "Warning: Snakes" signs out front. There was street after street after street, neighborhood after neighborhood, mile after mile of this destruction. The vastness of disaster and the seeming total entropy of the response (eight months later…) hit us all anew. By the time we arrived to our area, the bus was always silent. It wasn’t really the time or place for self-congratulatory back-patting. It was the beginning of one more day on the long road back and we had a lot of work to get to.
After my return to Chicago, the physical toll mended quickly. The bruises disappeared, the cuts scabbed over and healed, the Katrina Kough dissipated, and the carpal tunnel flare up flared back down. For weeks afterwards though, I had dreams of endlessly cleaning. Sweeping, mopping, burning; mopping, burning, sweeping. Or, I’d be dreaming of a nice dinner with a friend, perhaps riding my bike on the lakeshore in Chicago, everything in the foreground perfectly normal, but the backgrounds were in complete ruins. I also cleaned out my own kitchen and started going through boxes in closets, with the thought of making it easier in case someone needed to shovel out my belongings someday. I even found myself caught up in some Perry Mason reruns, taking comfort in the show’s firm logic, clarity and truth, things so decidedly lacking in Gulf Coast relief effort.
No one back home could believe the pictures I took or the stories I told. It seemed so long ago, they thought, things had to be better by now. There wasn’t much building? Houses were still moldering, untouched since the storm? Bodies were still being found? People weren’t returning? I found that my recitations of the experience almost became mechanical, the wrongs and cataclysms rehearsed for maximum impact. The enormity was again overwhelming the personal. Several days later, though, I was talking to one of my oldest friends about the work and I said the names Billy and Barbie out loud for the first time since leaving the remains of their home and I just started to sob. The whole specific human aspect jarringly returned.
Since my return, a lot of people have congratulated me for being one of the "heroes." While I am keenly proud of my effort, it would be terribly misplaced to think myself a hero. I don’t think any of our team, or any of the hundreds of other volunteers, would be comfortable with that, either. If there was anything heroic about us, perhaps, it was that 10 complete strangers came together in such a compressed time under intense circumstances, bonded quickly, gave our trust freely and were absolutely dedicated to helping other complete strangers. Rather, it is the people who are carrying on with the quotidian business of life in a wrecked landscape without losing hope, the people who are recovering and rebuilding in the face of indescribable obstacles and humiliating red tape, the people who have been forgotten by their country and their government after having lost their property, their neighborhoods and their social fabrics who are the heroes. It is a prodigious triumph of the will not to be overcome by the surrounding madness or haunted by the darkness and debris piles or to give into anger and paralysis. That is heroism.
Maybe if all the bickering politicians and profiteers had to spend just ONE night in a FEMA trailer in an asphalt parking lot in the summer heat with neighbors four feet from them on either side things might move along at a better clip. Maybe if a portion of the money theoretically being spent on relief efforts on giving every American taxpayer an up close tour of the area, putting the failures and money squandering in stark, unavoidable terms, I guarantee there would be no more talk of "Katrina fatigue." Maybe, if people are not moved by the human and emotional toll or the broader issues of social inter-connectedness, we could appeal to their pocketbooks and elucidate how our
tax money is being funneled away from the people who need it and wasted in an enormous no-bid hog trough. Maybe if politicians didn’t content themselves (and their supporters) with flyovers and photo ops and spent more time on the ground and in the neighborhoods, the problem would stop being abstract. It’s easy to numb yourself driving past the endless debris piles, but when you walk by them something distinct always catches your eyea doll or a stuffed animal or a toothbrushthat reminds you of the staggering human toll. Maybe, just maybe, if we could see a bit of ourselves in that debris, if we could imagine ourselves being left behind by our government, we would remember what it means to be part of a society.
On our last night together, the team had dinner and some drinks in the parish, the money spent supporting the immediate area. We met at a bar a couple miles from the job site, one of the few businesses that had managed to re-open. It was a neighborhood roadhouse full of locals looking to revel; no frills, people un-self-consciously dancing to a jukebox full arena rock and shitty contemporary country, killer sausage po-boys and very welcome cheap, ice cold beer. As the last light of the day filtered through the windows, regulars showed the uninitiated among us how to eat the plates of boiled crawfish, traded buying rounds with us and blew off steam from the week. Interspersed with the toasts and shots and good-natured trash talking at the pool table there were unexpected, laser-like moments of pathos when someone would talk about the day they lost everything. They’d ask us "Where was everybody?" "Did people stop caring?" "Do people KNOW?" Their eyes would drift to the window and they’d look a thousand yards towards something no longer there. These were hard people, people used to tough work in difficult situationsfisherman, petroleum workers, longshoremen. To see them get choked up in front of complete strangers, to have them look you unsteadily in the eye and thank you deeply for helpingeven though you KNOW they’d rather just be given the means and support to do it themselves, the whole mess became grotesque and infuriating. The refrain of "Eight months later…" turned from disbelief to anger.
Was it hubris to build up communities in such environmentally delicate areas? Absolutely. Should many of them be re-built as they were? Assuredly not. Was the area some sort of paradigm of local and regional governmental effectiveness and piety before the storm? Of course not. Yet these are not reasons to blame the victim. While there were (and are) examples of graft and mismanagement that played well with the Fox News crowd, they should not be used as a bromide to diminish or erase the problem. Yes, it was easy to find a scapegoat (Osama bin Nagin, anyone, or the clownishly ineffectual Michael Brown?) on which to pin the region’s problems; it gives everyone sitting comfortably in their recliners a comfy, emblematic target. Condemning the mayor of New Orleans for the response, besides being tinged with an insidious soft racism (oh look, they re-elected himthey must be happy with the job he did) is like blaming the kicker for the loss when he misses a field goal in the fourth quarter of a game his team is behind 41-0. Besides, I’m a little unclear as to how he is at fault for the vast areas affected outside the city limits. Just as demonizing an unqualified administration appointee misses the larger mark. It is narrow and ignorant thinking. At a time when insurance companies are making record profits, we should be outraged when we hear about the semantic arguments distinguishing between damage caused by hurricane versus flood. It should give us all reason to question our presumed safety nets.
Will New Orleans or St Bernard Parish ever be the same? Despite all the civic pride and We Shall Overcome spirit we hear from boosters, I can’t see how it will happen. Most progress is bittersweet and the loss is simply too profound, the neglect too rampant. The organic fabric borne of generations in so many areas and neighborhoods has simply ceased to exist.
In an environment of systemic indifference, if not outright hostility towards the plight of our neighbors on the Gulf Coast, in the absence of accountability at the highest political levels, and with a concern for appearance over reality, the spirit of volunteerism cannot die, the urge to make a difference one wheelbarrow, one house at a time cannot be neglected. We need to ask if we want our elected officials, reflections of ourselves, after all, to uphold the Jeffersonian ideal of "the care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate goal of good government," or are we just a hodge podge of 300 million or so little islands all breathing a sigh of relief that it wasn’t us clinging to those rooftops?
After 3 full days, the 10 of us finished gutting the Dunne’s house down to the studs. Now, it was ready for mold remediation and, potentially, the first steps towards re-building. More importantly, we provided a service that saved them thousands of dollars and, in a nifty little catch-22, allowed them to start putting in claims for damages (which couldn’t be done until the house was cleaned. I know, I don’t get it either.) At the end of it all, a 1500-2000 cubic foot debris pile sprawled in front of their house to the curb. All this for one home, on one street. One family. Remaining in the shell of their home were a few bins of possessions we’d salvaged and put aside should they ever come back looking for something, anything. A mug, a soggy photo album, the cheerleading trophies. We even put aside the wedding dress; maybe Barbie can get the mold out. We wrote a note wishing them luck, left and walked down the block to begin another house.
I am better for having been there, doing what I did, seeing what I saw, and telling it to everyone I know. While it is, perhaps, a vain one, I can only hope Billy and Barbie Dunne and their girls are even fractionally better off for our efforts. I am only sorry it took me so long to get there. They can now take the next step in re-building---wherever or whatever that may be. No, I’ll probably never get to meet them, but I am closer to them in many ways than I am with friends I have known for decades. I’ll never forget them.
Neither should you.
The following is courtesy of ThinkProgress.org, but the statistics come from other sources, and are cited with links.
- Less than half of the city’s pre-storm population of 460,000 has returned, putting the population at roughly what it was in 1880.
- Nearly a third of the trash has yet to be picked up.
- Sixty percent of homes still lack electricity.
- Seventeen percent of the buses are operational.
- Half of the physicians have left, and there is a shortage of 1,000 nurses.
- Six of the nine hospitals remain closed.
- Sixty-six percent of public schools have reopened.
- A 40 percent hike in rental rates, disproportionately affecting black and low-income families.
- A 300 percent increase in the suicide rate.
Rob Miller is co-founder/co-owner of Bloodshot Records in Chicago, Illinois. In 1988, he met Irma Thomas, Soul Queen of New Orleans, at her club. She comped him a bowl of her own homemade red beans and rice because she said he "looked like he could use it."
The club has yet to re-open since the storm.