Sep 4, 2005

New Orleans is Burning

The tragedy, devastation and resulting human suffering in the South in the wake of Hurricane Katrina has been heavy on our minds this week. I had been living in relative isolation from the incident until D told me how bad it was. After reviewing some reports, I realized that I've been nonchalant about something far more significant even than what was being reported on the evening news. I'm completely overwhelmed by what I'm seeing and hearing, and what's frustrating is that I don't feel like I'm getting enough information, and I'm sitting safe and sound in a neighborhood far away from the disaster sites. I can't begin to imagine what people in the midst of this disaster are going through, with no information at all.

I can't believe that I was just there last year on a wonderful surprise birthday trip planned solely by D, for which I am so thankful now. She fell in love with the city, and vowed to return. I remember feeling like there was so much to the city, but not taking full advantage of it because I was hot and it was humid. I remember going to the Voodoo Museum, which was more like a living cultural center, in the French District. I remember, of course, Cafe DuMonde. I remember picking up Ward Churchill's "From A Native Son" in a used bookstore and later meeting James Carville in a local record shop. Well, being near D when she introduced herself and expressed her condolences for the 2000 election. "We'll get it right this time," the Louisianian said in his trademark deep voice.

I remember the feeling that this was a different place, a unique place, especially in the relative quiet of early August 2004. Echoing what many people must be saying, I think to myself "at least I saw it once... before."

Perhaps that's what people say about the World Trade Center, though just visiting the buildings was not to understand their place in personal geographies of the City. Gazing upon their height did not do justice to the otherworldly feeling of peering out of Windows on the World at twilight, over the shimmering elegance of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, to the curved edge of the world.

But New York wasn't destroyed. New York was not the new Pompeii. Is NOLA? Or can it be equated with Galveston, Texas, a booming metropolis before it was virtually destroyed by a hurricane on September 7, 1900. It is estimated that between 6,000 - 12,000 people lost their lives during that disaster, which was the single largest natural disaster recorded in United States history.

I am absolutely appalled at what I saw on the news at home today, about the dire situations at the Convention Center and the Superdome in New Orleans. It's absolutely scandalous that so many people were corralled into these sites and then JUST LEFT THERE. Where is the accountability? I heard "we're witnessing modern-day genocide" and "it was like being in a refugee camp in a third-world country." There were no cops there. There was no food or water there. There were thousands of people in a very small space, who didn't have a lot to begin with, and had lost all of it. There were people dying, and others taking advantage of the chaos. It was crazy. And five days later, the water and the troops came, and perhaps they are starting to bus more folks away. But why did it take so long?

I saw that one-third of cops in New Orleans abandoned their posts immediately after the levees broke. I saw, for the first time, a cop go off on screen, deliberately, calling out all his fellow cops who left as not being worthy to have the badge. I saw cops crying, as they saw the despair and lawlessness take over the streets that they'd guarded, and even a cop who made a statement to just tell his wife that he loved her. He didn't say it, but the desparation in his voice and the tears on his face made it seem that, perhaps, he wasn't sure if he'd make it through the next weeks. It was very moving, very scary, and very haunting.

And what about the rest of the world? I heard that Cuba moved nearly 2 million people out of the destructive path of Hurricane Ivan without losing a single life, and they have a system for dealing with this kind of natural crisis. Castro has offered doctors and medicine from Cuba to assist in the aftermath of Katrina, and has refused to comment on the preparedness or response from the White House, stating "this is not a time to kick an adversary, when he is down." Venezuela's populist President, Hugo Chavez, the subject of an assassination rant from Pat Robertson a couple of weeks ago, offered increased gas supplies and donations from Citgo, the nation's retail outlet in the United States [1].

An official from Germany was more direct, citing environmental irresponsibility by the United States as one of the reasons that there were more big storms - and this was even before the storm hit the Gulf Coast. His higher-ups have since offered aid, but have not distanced themselves from the comments. I anticipate more comments like this, that it takes a slap in the face for the United States government to realize that they are part of something larger than just their own power games. But this is not the time to focus on this. People are still dying.

I heard the Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, reply angrily to questions from the press:

"I don't want to see anybody do anymore goddamn press conferences. Put
a moratorium on press conferences. Don't do another press conference
until the resources are in this city. And then come down to this city
and stand with us when there are military trucks and troops that we
can't even count.

Don't tell me 40,000 people are coming here. They're not here. It's
too doggone late. Now get off your asses and do something, and let's
fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country."
[full interview]

Some more information that I've picked up:
*More than 100,000 poor people in New Orleans did not have cars or access to cars to get out of the city. How are you supposed to leave if you don't have the means to do so? How can you expect people to leave whatever they have without a clear indication of the danger?

*FEMA ran a drill in 2004 to see what would happen if there were a category 4-5 storm in the vicinity of New Orleans. The simulation revealed that there was a distinct possibility that the city could have been partially or fully flooded. They had a year to plan, and they didn't. There was no deployment of troops, there was no help coordinated and brought to those who needed it as quickly as possible. They said that they were having communication problems (and then later, CNN, to their credit, had a former FEMA director on who said that there should be at least 3 - 4 alternatives to cell phones, which was Standard Operating Procedure).

*FEMA should have been at the heart of the response to the disaster. There's no question of that, as witnessed in many other natural disasters, and even in New York after September 11th. What happened? Why was the response not coordinated? Why is the Dept. of Homeland Security, which is now in charge of FEMA, dodging the bullet on this? I've heard the Mayor blame everyone, the Governor blame the Feds, the Feds blame each other. But I'm blaming FEMA right now. We need some answers.

I want to focus on FEMA for a little bit, since I saw some of their work as one of the many people who working on relief in New York City after September 11th. During that time, we saw FEMA come in, set up shop, and begin the multiple tasks of managing the disaster recovery efforts at the site of the World Trade Center and distributing rental assistance for affected residents and workers. FEMA drew a line across Canal Street that cut Chinatown in half and iced out affected folks north of the "frozen zone," until community advocacy changed the requirements. FEMA offered rental assistance to folks who could prove either that the events of Sept. 11 directly affected their housing, or in the much larger group, that it affected their income. There were tens of thousands of folks who received rental assistance for 12 months, and then 18 months upon renewal. It was a critical program, replete with many problems in initial implementation (taxi drivers were shut out of the system for months until the direct advocacy of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance turned this around for the industry of 30,000+ drivers who had been hit so hard by the disaster, a social security number was necessary to actually qualify, which shut out a lot of people at the bottom of the economic food chain).

I worked with a number of community groups and community members who qualified, and the program really helped them, but in a housing market like NYC, where rents are always rising, having an income that was still only a fraction of its modest state before the disaster was cause for concern. Add to that the possibility that business was not going to get better, and the prospect of a clear end date for FEMA benefits and the clear indication that economically affected folks were not going to be the recipients of the massive reserve that the American Red Cross had collected in the name of September 11th[2]. Many people weren't able to recover financially after the tragedy in NYC, even with the rental assistance from FEMA, and they either left the city, or the nation altogether. And these were folks who, on the most part, either lost their jobs and couldn't find gainful employment, or had a significant dip in monthly income. Those members of the greater NYC community, four years later, are not the same. And many of the stories were heartbreaking, but deemed far less important than many other interest groups, who took up most of the bandwidth about who was hurt by this tragedy.

Now take the still unfolding situation in New Orleans. Regardless of who messed up where and when concerning the warning, planning, evacuation, and rescue of this city without parallel, when the waters recede, and the lost have been estimated, we will face a recovery effort the likes of which this nation has not seen since Reconstruction. And let's face it: New Orleans is years from coming back to where it was, if even then. So what is going to happen to all of these evacuees and refugees from a city with deeper roots than most of the places in this young nation? Where will people who have lived nowhere else, whose family is tied to this place, whose ancestors have been buried there for generations, whose loved ones may still be there now, stolen from them without a proper goodbye, where will they go? What will happen to them, without homes, without jobs, without anything save for broken hopes and broken dreams of what once was? Without a registration program, a rolling database, or any way to track the living, the dead, or the relocated, how are we going to find these folks that have been moved to so many states around the nation already?

Let's break it down:

1) Folks have lost family members to this disaster.

2) Folks have lost their homes, possessions, and jobs.

3) Folks are not familiar with their new surroundings, don't have money or prospects, and haven't any idea of what comes next.

4) It's going to take a long time before NOLA can take people back, and when they rebuild, they won't be rebuilding low income housing. So will the poorest of the city ever return to their home city, reborn from the refuse?

5) How will this massive a population of folks with nothing be supported through this transition?

You can't just write rent checks for a year and wish them well. You can't even find them all. There will be a massive identity verification issue, as folks realize that they don't have valid identification on them, or they don't have or know their Social Security numbers. Without a driver's license, a permanent address, or a social security number, with these folks really be able to collect anything from the Federal Government? At least people in New York, if they had status, still had their paperwork safe in their homes. Katrina's wake will leave so many people without any proof of identification, and while they are grieving for personal and collective loss, they will not simply be able to start over. It's a lot more complicated than that.

I'm really just so worried and frustrated about what this means, a month, a year down the line. And to think about all those kids - where will they go to school? How can they focus? What does that mean for their future?


[1] Did you know that Chavez offered gas at cheaper prices for America's poor before the storm hit, to be distributed by the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA's Citgo stations? Did you know that Fidel Castro has been offering free medical education for America's minority population, provided that they return home and work for impoverished communities for at least 5 years? While neither is a perfect picture of what leaders should be, I find their attention to the gaps in the American Dream to be more astute than that of our own leaders, whatever side of the aisle they are on.

[2] Let's not forget: the Red Cross does not use all monies raised at the time of an emergency for that particular emergency. They keep at least some percentage in the bank for future calamities. After coming under harsh fire for this in the wake of Sept. 11, they revised some of their policies. On the other hand, the United Way created the September 11th Fund, and they gave everything away.


Rage said...

For more on Cuba's evacuation plan, check this out.

burnedouteyes said...

good post

did not know a lot of this....

Rage said...

Thanks, man. So much to write, so little heart to write it.