Friday, March 19, 2010

New Orleans: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

There's so much to think about. Which, I suppose, was mostly the point of doing something like this.

I've talked to so many people over the past week and it got to the point where I started taking notes to remember all of the stories I've heard. It's like asking someone where he or she was when he or she first saw the televised images of 9-11 or heard about Kennedy being shot: everyone has a story to tell.

In my efforts to collect my thoughts, I started taking notes. Jotting down little key words to remember specific stories and incidents. And so, I'll relate them to you here with some explanations. Also, some of these stories correspond to pictures in earlier blog entries. I'm not nearly organized enough (or with the luxury of enough time) at this point to make the connections, but hopefully some logic abounds.

- Architecture schools from all over the US have jumped on board to design new homes, especially in areas like Brad Pitt's Make It Right project (which we walked through as part of our 9th Ward tour the other day) and Harry Connick Jr and Branford Marsalis's Musician's Village (which we also saw and is also located in the 9th Ward.) The homes are re-built with new specifications to withstand Category 5 hurricanes and floods which, in the Make It Right area meant raising the houses on stilts up to where the roof lines used to be. Additionally, aesthetics are considered as crucial as logistics, which is part of what makes these projects unique. Architecture schools have churned out creative, compelling designs (see "Completed Homes Gallery" on the Make It Right page) with interesting details, the way New Orleans architecture was meant to be. On top of all of that, many of the homes are built in eco-friendly ways with sustainable energy intake.

- The X's on the doors are a part of a city-wide audit that was done in the days and weeks immediately following the hurricane. Each quadrant corresponds to a different piece of information: the date, the unit conducting the search/audit (which began as a Search and Rescue effort but soon dematerialized into a count as few were found in later weeks), any structural hazards, and whether or not anyone was found (alive or dead.)

-Other information painted on houses: the ASPCA left notations of pets that were picked up. "Two Dogs," and "Black Cat" are clearly labelled in two of the pictures from one of my previous posts. Pets were not allowed in any of the shelters, and most people were forced to leave them behind if they could not make other arrangements. A make-shift animal shelter was set up near the public morgue and volunteers posted pictures of found pets on the Internet in the hopes that owners would be searching. As late as two years after Katrina, owners were still trickling back into the city and, joyfully, coming to reclaim pets that had been thought long dead and gone.

For all of the horrific stories about Katrina, for all of the death, poverty, and social issues, there are scattered stories of hope and love.

-One of the problems associated with the disbursement of federal aid and insurance claims is closely linked to social issues in terms of poverty, primarily the fact that often houses changed hands in the event of a death (passed from parent to surviving children, for example) with no actual legal transfer of deed. In fact, the deeds for many of the houses were lost, destroyed, or simply non-existent after years of impoverished circumstances. This was merely one tiny hiccup in the massive and painful hemmorhage of things gone wrong and the sudden visibility of all of the problems an urban area can have.

-Approximately 1,500 people perished directly from Katrina, about 100 of which were never identified or claimed. New studies have revealed that extensive stress, depression, and other post-traumatic ailments may be behind thousands of other deaths that followed in the weeks, months, and even years after the storm.

- Big plants, such as Coca Cola, in a hurry to get workers back on the job and producing would have huge installments of FEMA trailers placed on site to accomodate workers and families. In a massively counter-logical way, big businesses helped push local businesses back into existence as families would move back to the area to reclaim their jobs and need local businesses for food, gas, etc.

-The entire city was closed to residents in the weeks following Katrina and those who came back either had to have some form of legal identification that merited entrance to the city. Of the people we have spoken with, most of them created some sort of fraudulent identification and/or fabricated lie to get past the National Guard to get home to see what was left of their houses.

- The water that breached the levee in the Lower 9th Ward and up by the 17th St Canal stood until early October, ebbing with the tidal pulls of the Gulf. Houses still have clearly marked water lines, starting at the gutters and moving down, foot by foot, as the water was drained and/or pumped out. In the weeks following Katrina, the weather was at record highs. Which meant that every house full of water was also a house full of water and standing at between 80-95 degrees with high humidity. Even homes in which only the first floor was flooded needed to be completely gutted and renovated (provided the force of the water hadn't knocked the house fully off its foundation, which was common) because of mold. The mold attacked and destroyed everything; every wall, every stitch of furniture, every book, every floor board, every lamp, everything. When houses were gutted, not a thing could be saved as everything was in such a state of rot and decay by the time the waters receded.

-Things that require electricity: mortuaries and aquariums, among others. Mortuaries lost power and corpses rotted in record time. The aquarium could no longer oxygenate the water, and every living thing inside died. The tanks had to be emptied, scrubbed, and completely re-stocked. Fortunately, however, most animals in the Zoo made it safely through the storm.

-Other thing that requires electricity: refrigerators. There was a massive shortage of refrigerators available for purchase in the New Orleans area for up to a year later, because residents were unable to return to their homes for weeks after Katrina and, when they did, found bio-hazards residing where their cold cuts had been. Most residents did not bother opening the refrigerator door ("I had just gone fishing," one man joked) but duct-taped it shut and simply put it out on the corner for bulk pick-up. One family finally purchased a refrigerator in Baton Rouge online, rented a U-Haul, and drove up to get it. Even in the movement of the refrigerators, "juice still leaked out." I am told that I cannot imagine the stench, the disgust of it all. I had some visualization that, eventually (because in homes that were gutted, refrigerators remained untouched for 6 months to a year post-Katrina) the food would simply rot to a point of non-existence but, apparently, this is an uninformed viewpoint. The food is still there, a year later, unrefrigerated. Vomit.

-There is much talk of Hurricane Katrina being an "equal-opportunity flood," meaning it wiped out poor and rich homes alike with no thought to socio-economic circumstances. However, this completely perverted term is highly contraversial and, in many cases, offensive. Yes, a storm surge that breaks down a levee wall is just as apt to wipe out a multi-million dollar mansion as it is a shot-gun house, but who do you think has insurance to rebuild? Who do you think has enough money in savings to temporarily re-locate while contractors can rebuild? Many who lost their homes in New Orleans simply had no where else to go, no options, no money, and nothing left without the collateral of a house.

"Why didn't they evacuate? What, were they going to leave bed-ridden Grandma, climb into the family car with money and food, and go stay in a Best Western?" someone noted. An evacuation requires a back-up plan, something that is considered a luxury.

Additionally, Hurricane Katrina occurred towards the end of the month when many welfare families are stretching out the dregs of that month's check. The last few dimes and dollars rattled around as meteorologists urged people to leave, and the subsequent storm caused a major red tape earthquake and long delays in issuing checks and other forms of government help.

-There is, and perhaps always will be, a major debate over public housing. To re-build or not to re-build being the central question, and yet another tiny sliver of the massively-complicated latticework of post-Katrina problems. To be fair, however, public housing is a major debate in any urban city, its very existence bringing with it a host of questions and problems. As of yet, and this is only according to my sources so I could be wrong, none of the public housing that was destroyed in Katrina has been rebuilt. Neighboring cities, such as Houston, have absorbed many of the displaced and are now seeing social issues arise because of this.

My knowledge of Katrina was limited to the rhetoric issued mainly by the Associated Press and other news outlets, but the drama continues and is far more complicated than I had previously understood. It seems that under every rock there is another issue, another problem, another facet of the vastly complex underpinnings of this particular national disaster. Although Katrina was certainly not the first or last hurricane to devastate any area of the US, it has certainly become one of the most hotly debated for the sheer fact that it unearthed a seemingly-unsurmountable number of problems with urban areas in general. A severe gap in the population between the haves and have-nots, an immediate call to address issues that this city (and it is in no way unique in this fashion, because most-if-not-all cities suffer from the same sort of helplessness when it comes to some of these problems) had, for years, swept in layers under forgotten rugs.

Although I'm coming a bit late to the party, and although my understanding of the situation is changing by the day (if not by the minute/hour), I am slowly attempting to grasp the complexity of everything and try to make some sense of it.

And it's not all bad, certainly. Crime rates are down, the spirit of the city is infectious, and volunteering is at an all-time high. Where local and federal governments have failed, again and again, to provide aid for citizens, private and indepedent groups have stepped in. This is a great time for guerilla volunteering, for community, for working to re-build a city with a past as spicy and sweet as its delicacies. There is endless culture here, and Katrina has fueled creativity for a new generation of artists working to make sense of the catastrophe through art, music, and literature. There is hope here, certainly, and a belief that the problems are not insurmountable, the damage not permanant, and spirit still alive and well.

And, of course, there are drive-through daiquiris, and bowling alleys with live zydeco music, and po'boys, and red beans and rice, and pralines, and palm trees. There are those things too.


Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

we really appreciate the way you Accentuate the Positive.
However, please school yourself on one Very Important Detail about the Federal Flood of 8/29/05: it wasn't Katrina.
Katrina missed New Orleans and devastated Mississippi, a state just to the NE right next to Louisiana.
The Corps of Engineers failed engineering Struck and Devastated New Orleans on 8/29/05.
This is The Facts.
Please stop saying "Katrina did it."
There is a Big Diff between Natural Disaster (Katrina) and Man Made Disaster (the Federal Flood of New Orleans).

Please start here:
--and of course you will find yourself duly hung on my own blog today, the New Orleans Ladder, because this is a really fine post you've done.
And I mean it, we appreciate you keeping the lights on for New Orleans.
Jus'sayin, help us destroy the use of Katrina Shorthand to frame what happened to New Orleans (and thus all of us).

Thanks youz

PatriotPaul said...

I concur with the comment above. This was an UNNATURAL disaster for NOLA.

Great compilation of issues surrounding the disaster though, indeed.

Another reason folks (like myself) couldn't evacuate was because the Airport, Amtrak, and Greyhound all shut down a day prior to the evacuation and 2 days prior to the storm.

Paul Harris
Author, "Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina"