Monday, September 11, 2006

Katrina: A Year Later, A Year Longer

Continuing to Ignore the Crying Out Loud and Choosing to Forget the Crying in Silence

NEW ORLEANS: “You from FEMUR?” “No sir, I am definitely not from FEMA.” The old man with his backwoods Mississippi drawl and placid, but suspicious eyes gave me an up and down gaze—taking in the pasty white neo-missionary polo shirt and badly bent ball cap pasted with logos of the organization I was working for—and told me to come on in to his FEMA trailer. Had I been wearing a large billboard on my chest proclaiming “I am neither FEMA nor the Red Cross!” I would still be looked upon with a mixture of frustration, suspicion and apathy by many of the residents, workers and volunteers roaming the FEMA and commercial trailer parks and residential blocks in southern Mississippi, also known as the Gulf Coast.
There is good reason for all the negative feelings and traumatized apathy that is apparent in so many of the Gulf Coast and Southeastern Louisiana (especially New Orleans) communities. A year has passed since the Hurricanes of 2005, namely Katrina but also Wilma and Rita, ravished this area of the country and thousands upon thousands of people are still living in conditions unfit for even the most beastly of genetic makeup’s. A year later families of 8 or 9 are still stuffed sardines in aluminum packaging and aging, wonderfully, wrinkled widows are still suffocating alone in nauseating, government procured—and government neglected—boxes. With little foresight, these trailers, clearly not ready for long-term living nor for the growing potential of more hurricanes in the near future, have become living mausoleums baking in the sun. Not dissimilar to the actual mausoleums that give so much personality and grace to New Orleanean cemetery’s. Its just that these mausoleums having living, breathing capable human beings in them.
Having returned to the south for the second time this year to help conduct a children and family health survey for those affected and displaced by the hurricanes, I found myself curious as to what kind of progress, or lack thereof, had been made since my last visit (confined to Louisiana) in February. I am not sure what I was looking for. How do you measure “progress” with anything, especially since I only had vague encounters with these regions the month before the hurricanes hit? Was I looking for obvious signs of rebuilding or fewer trailers? Was I hoping to encounter people who were less PTSD’d (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—made famous by our Vietnam vets and our genocide of the indigenous populations of what is now America) than before? How can one tell anyway—by numerically counting how many fewer times an old man, with barely any prompting breaks into uncontrollable crying? I am not sure what I was looking for, but whatever it was I did not find too much of it. Maybe somewhere in this commentary “progress” will prevail through interpretation.
Anyway, this time we conducted the survey on the Gulf Coast in communities like Waveland, Pascagoula, Gautier, Biloxi, Bay St. Louis and Picayunes (none of which are pronounced the way they look on paper). Upon entering Mississippi from Louisiana I thought it would make sense to drive into some of the ravished communities before attempting to interview anyone from those communities. Though it can never match what the victim-survivors have gone through it would put some perspective on where they have come from and who they may be. Along the coast there just seems to be destruction, only a year later it is better hidden as many of the debris has been removed somewhere—if not out to sea. Foundations are still rooted and 6-step stairways still stand like pathways into some kind of undefined and tortuous future. The Gulf Coast (especially right on the water) before the hurricanes was a hotbed of casinos, chain fast food places and restaurants and nineteenth century plantation/mansion homes. Just inland one would find the working class and poor neighbourhoods, in other words the communities where the chains, casinos and second-home mansion owners found their employees to exploit. Many of the people in these areas also worked in sea-based industries that were also badly hit and remain so due to so much contamination and toxic waste and run-off brought on by the hurricanes and negligent environmental policies by administrations past and present.
In a disturbingly sadistic way, it was almost enjoyable to see the decimated casinos, McDonalds, Waffle Houses and Angus Steakhouses. Actually, I couldn’t see them because all that remained were parking lots and road signs exclaiming “-AF—E H-US-“ or “CA-I— MAG-C” as they lay bent on the beachfront. But it did not take many interviews and encounters with people at different moments to realize the importance of these industries to the Mississippi economy. For many, these were the only job options and for many they had to work at more than one of these places to survive; in fact, for so many who work at these places they were still eligible for welfare (a great irony of our “great” nation, or another great reason to roll your eyes and get up and do something: to have 2-3 income family’s that still need welfare and have few to no health benefits). It was with great sadness, but by no means coincidental, that while I was down south the national poverty index based on household incomes, and other economic factors, was published in USA Today. Mississippi ranked dead last (no pun intended) and the other states most affected by the hurricanes, Louisiana and Alabama, were not far behind—or ahead as the case may be.
It should then come as no surprise to hear about the Walmart-ization of the economy in the south that had started well before the hurricanes, but has gone into full-throttle since the hurricanes and further perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Almost every community, small or large, houses a super Wal-Mart—now the leading employer in the south I am sure. These super centers offer every reason to not ever have to go anywhere else to consume in these towns and cities. You can fill up your gas, get your groceries and greens, get your hair and nails done and have a bite at McDonalds simply by entering one of these exorbitant oasis, that prominently stand in the working class towns. Therein, with their sheer grandiose and convenience, Wal-Mart makes it impossible for the ma and pa shops, stores, and cafes to re-open or even attempt to rebuild after the hurricanes. What reason would there be? Our capitalist economy that thrives on competition has shut you down not due to some kind of competitive incompetence but because a nature made, but humanly cultivated disaster has destroyed everything you have and everything you know. You have no way of recouping your loss and Wal-Mart has air-conditioning and clean bathrooms. How can you top that? Especially when you have to go home to the trailer trenches in the evening and hope that the drug addict in the trailer next door does not have a bad meth trip that night and decide to trash everything you have clung desperately to for the last year. Simply speaking, Wal-Mart isn’t providing any “progress” but neither are the gulf-shore oil companies and casinos that were truncating these communities long before Katrina came along and reminded America of the differentiating manifestations of poverty that are most pervasive in the south.
I regress. For the survey, we were interviewing people in the FEMA and commercial trailer parks and in trailers on the properties of those most-affected by the hurricanes. Unlike those in Louisiana, it seemed like a lot of the trailer parks were actually relatively close to services, infrastructure and the communities from which people were displaced. In fact, many of the children I encountered were even able to attend the same school they were at before the hurricanes—that is if they were even enrolled. But the closeness did not necessarily equate to better access to the services. The trailer parks sat eerily behind Wal-Mart’s or smack in the middle of some hurricane-smashed strip mall; or maybe it was behind the destroyed VA or in the shadow of an intrusive casino in Biloxi. Like in Louisiana in February, where residents were facing the cutting of free gas and fuel into the trailers, in Mississippi residents were beginning to get their water shut off if they did not start paying for it. And like the Louisiana residents, many people are not making the extra income to pay for such “extravagances,” excuse me, necessities like water and gas. So what is to be done? Thankfully (I mean this in the most ironic of ways, of course), Anheuser-Busch, better known as Budweiser beer, was proudly and prudently providing free water to current trailer residents both on the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans. Funny thing about it is that the water came in clearly defined beer cans—except they said water on them (has anyone ever tried water from a beer can? Creepy…). Hmm, lets try to articulate all the ways beer-sponsored-water could be seen as problematic: 1) Alcohol abuse is already rife in these extreme conditions so something about water in beer cans just doesn’t seem conducive to solving that problem. 2) Kids are drinking from what amounts to beer cans. 3) The police, security and landlords, who already over police these areas and suspect everyone of everything will now have more reason to unreasonably break down doors and interrogate residents who are suspected of anything from being publicly drunk to trying to survive in shitty conditions. The list can go on; I almost wish I had one of the cans so I could sip on what I would presume to be some of the most addictive and enticing water one can drink. For whatever reason this makes me think of the Bush HIV/AIDS PEPFAR policy of not providing money to NGOs that distribute condoms; that is, it seems to be countering a problem by making so many other problems worse! FEMA seems to be okay with the beer can waters.
The communities that found the trailers on properties were the kind of areas that provides service to an imagination that has read extensively about (or experienced—if you have) the Civil Rights Movement or watched movies like Mississippi Burning and Deliverance: these are areas mostly full of poor and working-class white families where the roads are made of dirt and rough around the edges and where it is not uncommon, in fact it is more than common, to see the rebel confederate flag flying proudly—be it on a house still standing or on a pile of rubble next to a “Jesus shed” and sign reading “Trespassers will be shot without question” or “I will shoot to kill Theavs; Beware of owner + gun” in sprawling spray-paint. Meeting a southerner in this area, who immediately knows I am a Yankee with my walk and my talk and sees me pondering the revelatory flag with great remorse and sorrow, will tell me that it represents pride in the south and not racist ideology. I marvel with sympathy anyone that can convince him or herself that that may be near the truth. In my time in the south over the last 14 months, I have never seen a Black person with a confederate flag on a shirt, house, car, pocketbook, or pen; or riding with a bumper sticker that aggravates by stating “Don’t blame us, we voted for Jefferson Davis.” Our people responsible for safety and security (of which there was not much of either) told us to be aware of the trailer parks what with their brothels, addicts and crime; but my fear for life came in these back-country areas, where the hair stood on my neck and my knuckles got dry white every time a sun-burnt white guy came up to me and said “What ya doing here?” or “Lemme borrow your phone, son.” And I definitely thought about ditching the whole project when an old man with a rebel flag on his table, was telling me how he took 10-12 pills a day for various ailments, was the sole guardian to five grandchildren and then took me by the shoulder into his room to show me the shotgun the length of my body that he uses to protect his block from “those troublemakers.” At least in the trailers there were always plenty of people around and we knew we were being stared at from behind broken windows and not from behind six-foot high shrubs and 1952 model school buses that have been rusted and long abandoned on a back road to anywhere but where it was. Maybe this is why when I was the driver in a car with two Black women in the backseat and two White men in the front and was pulled over in a rent-a-car with supposedly dim taillights by a White Mississippi cop, I feared I would be part of the plot to a bad ABC miniseries—thankfully, my judgment was wrong as usual (though, I still don’t think there was any “real” reason to pull me over).
The problems we saw within these communities were not disparate to those in Louisiana. A year after the displacement people are eroding into further depression, stress and anxieties as the survival period transitions into the watch and wait period. Dementia seems to be invasive, doctors are over-prescribing anti-depressants that can eventually slip into other dependencies if the actual depression or PTSD ever dissipates and lung/respiratory illness, especially in children, seem to be abrasively on the rise. Blood pressure and other heart-related problems are serving notice. There is a glut of sadness; it is visible in the sagging, glum eyes and it is heard in the tonalities and rupture in the voice of the individual that is talking. Illness arises from the cramped quarters, the germs, the toxic water and sewage lying stagnant beneath the trailers. Juxtapose that image upon the famous depiction of slaves in the Atlantic passage crowded into the undercarriage of a large slave-ship, then in turn juxtapose it on an image from the Superdome in New Orleans the week after the hurricanes and you may understand—though really, you and I probably cannot ever understand. Supposedly, the official Katrina death count has stopped, but if you have been following the news in the last year or talked to those affected by the hurricanes you will find out that people are still dying every single day, directly due to those hurricanes. I heard stories of suicide, heart attacks and people who had simply lost the will to carry on the struggle each day.
Imagine, just a long period of not knowing and not being allowed to know what is happening to the system around you. It has been a year! No one is providing answers to your questions—partly because there are no real answers and partly because the people who should know are incompetent or experiencing PTSD too. Either way you get the short end of the stick because you were close to poor before and your voice has probably never really mattered. Some people have been told they must move out by the end of this month or this year, some people think they have 24 or 36 months and some people think they will receive more help to find a new place to live and help with job placement. But no one is really sure, even the management in charge of the parks. In some areas it seems the only thing going up are high priced, chic-y condos.
Unlike in Louisiana, that is mostly those from New Orleans, on the Gulf Coast there does not seem to be as stark a polarization of Black versus White for those inflicted with Katrina. Many of those worse affected were poor, working and middle class Whites, unlike in and around southeast Louisiana where it seemed the predominant amount of directly affected and displaced persons were Black (walking around New Orleans today the upper class, mostly White communities seem almost unaffected by the hurricanes, life as normal, except with fewer Black people around). Everyone is getting screwed—though it was quite obvious that in the neighbourhoods most people were White and kind of rebuilding, while the parks were a good mix of everyone being miserable and frustrated. It would be shortsighted though to not think race has played a big part in the rebuilding and “renewing” of southern Mississippi. Race is entrenched (it cannot be “avoided”), much more egregiously so than in the north and west where we just pretend to know about race relations and we deal with the “other” and overcome our own social, economic and political dialogues in our fake and unrealistic ways. As an aside: take a step further and look out how the mass displacement of mostly Black families will further make attempts at genealogical research much tougher for generations to come. For families that migrated during the “Great Migration” of the first part of the twentieth century this may be difficult enough, but the families now may never have left the south. Now they are in Houston, Atlanta, Salt Lake City or Lafayette and their siblings, parents and children are likewise in divergent locations of time and space. Will the local, state or federal government pay for the family reunions? Doubtful if they even care. This may buttress a dialogue on they way race has been used to deprive the right of return to so many people displaced by the hurricanes.
The right of return is currently being denied to people all over the Gulf Coast and Southeastern Louisiana, namely New Orleans—racial overtones flow through this denial. Currently, in New Orleans there is a great disorder over housing occurring. Through some controversy, and much finger pointing (I am still not sure what level or branch of government is making these decisions), home owners and other residents were given one year from the date of the hurricane (August 29th, 2005) to return to their home or show signs of rebuilding on their property. If there were no visible signs of “renewal” the house, or foundation, etc would be demolished and cleared by the city (or is it the state or is it Halliburton, uh, the federal government?). There are massive lists of people queuing to have their homes gutted, mostly by volunteer organizations and church groups, and that is considered one sign of “renewal.” Many people are simply hiring someone to mow a lawn and make it look like progress is being made. Most of the neighbourhoods that this is happening to were very working class pre-Katrina and mostly decimated by Katrina, therefore there is a lot of work to be done. But the signs proclaiming, “We’re coming back!” are no longer sufficient for the bureaucracies.
Then there are all the Catch-22’s of rebuilding or “renewing:” 1) No one wants to return to a community where there are no services available, like water and electricity, and also markets, banks, gas stations and other stores, so old residents may be waiting for this to happen first. 2) Besides the service needs, it is hard to move back to a community that is without a community. A community is not a community without children in the streets, old people sitting on porches and cars in the driveway. No one wants to be the first inhabitant to return because they may be alone and unsafe; this predicament is impeding return. 3) Residents who have been moved upstate or out of state cannot afford to return to see what their property looks like, therefore they cannot begin to “renew” if that is what they desire to do. 4) Housing and zoning laws have changed since the hurricanes making it harder for low-income earners to get any benefits and making it easier for big business to make land grabs (like the imperial figures that get a kick out of gentrification and Starbucks-on-every-corner idealism). 5) Poor and working class people are simply unwanted in contemporary New Orleans even though, for contradictions sake, they are highly needed and, thus, in demand. The White communities, whoops I mean the upper class and rich communities, seem not to have too much of a stake to further the rebuilding process. While they rightly claim the want for the “renewal” of the cultural and spiritual zeal of New Orleans, there is not enough being done to welcome back the displaced or even work with those who are still in New Orleans. The community groups I encountered seemed to have only a little upper-class involvement (though I am sure mysterious “benefactors” exist). The activism is coming from those who were already a part of larger class, racial, social, and political struggles before the hurricanes and who have no choice but to be a part of the same struggles now. Life goes on in the richer neighbourhoods, with glorious oak trees and southern magnolias, while elsewhere the strange fruit continues to swing from the poplar trees. Who wants to go back to this?
It must be pointed out that there is some life, “rebirth” and “renewal” in New Orleans. While there, I got an opportunity to volunteer for an organization for a few days called the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund (, co-founded by a brilliant New Orleanean, Malcolm Suber. Before the hurricanes he did after school programming for under-served/resourced/privileged/etc schools in New Orleans. When the hurricanes hit, he gathered other like-minded social and cultural activists who were still in New Orleans and started this organization. I happened to be there as the year anniversary of the floods was to be commemorated; so this was everyone’s focus. They had organized a march from where the levee broke in the Lower Ninth Ward to Congo Square in the heart of the city—some three miles. Displaced persons came from all over the country for the memorial, followed by libation, reading the names of the deceased, the march and then the rally with music, speakers and more. Seeing many of the displaced come back to the ward for maybe the first time since the hurricanes was heart-wrenching, but there was still enough feelings and talk of hope that not all was loss. Standing among the ruins, friends and neighbors reunited with long embraces and undulations of joy. I remember watching the images of the displaced coming back to New Orleans to vote in April: the polls were not just a place of politics, but a place of laughter, reminiscing and discussions of the future. That’s what this gathering on August 29th, 2006 felt like. Obviously, as a bystander—on the outside looking in, in more ways than one—I cannot ever come close to knowing the feelings of so many of the people surrounding me that day. How am I to know what it is like to handwrite a name at the bottom of the list of Katrina’s deceased because the name is not already on the list? How can I really understand or acknowledge my surroundings when I can get on a train, bus or plane any time I want and get away from it all (physically, at least)?
Irony was embellished on the day of the commemoration, as the presence of the never-elected president was omnipresent throughout the city. He who hath forgot and ignored the people of the Gulf Coast, New Orleans and poor neighbourhoods around the country and world once again photo-op’d in the Big Easy. His entourage and “secret” services unapologetically shut down the roads that had already been marked for various marches, parades and other events. Ours was re-routed by the friendly National Guard who has overrun the city without regard to the actual safety of its citizens. The president came, made some promises (uh, that he had already made and neglected), apologized for having screwed everything up (uh, at the same time as passing blame as usual), and told the citizens (uh, the hand picked ones) that their city (uh, the rich part of it) would be great again (uh, as long as big business, corporations and the oil companies are allowed to be involved). He made his way to the Lower Ninth Ward to prove that he doesn’t hate Black people (uh, none were around because no one is living there a year later!), rolled up his shirtsleeves and left town. Over the coming days he would not mention the hurricanes, New Orleans or the Gulf Coast once, but go on a calculated series of diatribes to make clear where America stands on the war on terror as we head to the fifth anniversary of September 11th. His aim: to boost GOP chances in the fall, scare people into believing him again and to drive out “Islamo-fascists” (uh, contradiction in terms, sir) and other ideologues and liberals who subvert his war on the poor (uh, I mean terrorists). Katrina was once again forgotten. This time it only took a day. And by the end of this past week something like $80 billion more was added to the Iraq war chest to bring the total over half a trillion dollars I believe, while we are left to look under our seat cushions and in momma and poppy’s nightstand for extra coins lying around that can go to rebuilding and “renewing” the south, fixing the federal education and health care systems, and saving our pensions, homes, children and other superfluous (deemed by the powers that be) extremities of our country.
I regress. All along in New Orleans, there was a salient silence, some kind of incongruent quietness about the whole place. I was in New Orleans for the start of Mardi Gras this year (not undulating my pectoral muscles, but doing health survey interviews in hotels for the displaced) and now on the commemoration. These were events that should have brought loudness, drunken stumbly-ness and music that would make your feet move and butt shake even if you were under anesthesia. While the music was there and some parades were there (I had to choose one day between attending the Black Men of Labour Parade and the Southern Decadence Parade—Black Pride versus Gay Pride, I will leave your imagination open to which one I chose), the quietness was loud enough to make one go crazy in thought. Maybe the cumbersome presence of the National Guard to ruin any gathering had an effect or maybe it really is that the city is still half full, if that, from its pre-Katrina days. I was lucky enough to see some of New Orleans before Katrina and there always seemed to be something happening. The silence was intense, especially when rounding a corner in the heart of a business district and there, nonchalantly, stood an urban FEMA trailer park. These were probably housing many who had been moved out of the hotels and motels back in March. The people left in the city cannot avoid such reminders, and people visiting, working or volunteering are deluged on many street corners with overwhelming signs that a lot of work is yet to be done, that a lot of justice has yet to come, and that a lot of “renewal” and reconciliation will need to happen in order for this unique city to gain any of its once formidable self back again.
With buildings and people standing still in time, it is difficult to find revelatory “progress.” Walking out of the old-time Sanger Theatre in Biloxi after viewing Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” is a surreal experience these days. Part of the documentary shows the destruction of downtown Biloxi and when the theatre doors open, that’s where you are; the eerie streets, still devoured by natures act sitting stationary in the imagination and in reality. Six months and now a year later, I have had an opportunity to carry witness to the activism (and government digression) on all matters Katrina—both in the south and in New York City—and I am troubled by what is not being done, as well as hopeful of what could be done. In February my camera lens was trying hard to find a solitary red rose or stuffed teddy bear with coated-marble eyes to show that colour can come from darkness. This time it found the tall green grass and sunflower plants, magnolias and impromptu sidewalk memorials blooming around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. There are people crying and dying in the streets to bring about the social justice that has been so deserved (though “deserve” sounds too paternalistic) over centuries. But more can always be done. There are plenty of organizations doing good work down south, and there are plenty of community-based organizations doing good work to fight the Katrina in your backyard, too. Keep the pressure on whoever is in power or in control of the everyday life in your neighbourhood (if this is not so obvious, read a real history book or pick up a real newspaper). Tell your parents, children, siblings, colleagues, friends and enemies that more needs to be done—whatever that may mean in their and your context. Incite change or raise consciousness and awareness through any means necessary: in an email, a magazine, letter to the editor, speech, passing conversation, class, art, music, or incite through the way you carry yourself in everyday life or role-model for the children and youth you have, encounter or work with. In questioning what you will do, I am by all means questioning what I will do—and answers do not come easy. While assumptions and presumptions abound in this commentary, we are all responsible for the actions and inactions we take. Take this for what you will.

jed oppenheim


Ruth said...

Jed I really must say this blog by far is one of the BEST EVER WRITTEN in NA. I really feel angry with the government and FEMA(Fix Everything My Ass) for just not taking action and ignoring the already horried situation at the convention center. This reminds me a little of Rwanda and how the world and the US were so damn ignorant of it all. This will truly go down in history as a digrace to the Bush administration and American history. We must never forget what happened in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Well done, Jed I truly enjoyed reading this powerful blog!

Ruth said...
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Ruth said...
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