WITNESS TO NEW ORLEANS
by Dirk Tillotson
Not even the birds have returned to the Ninth Ward. Warm summer winds lap through the scores of neighborhoods that lay in rubble in what was once New Orleans. Driving through block after block, hardly a sign of life. Homes ripped from their moorings, perching on top of cars, or in their final resting place as a pile of rubble, sandwiches with plywood bread and memories and history as the meat.
Spray painting is the only sign of life and sometimes death. Some expressive, “Baghdad” “The Fire Next Time”, others, officially designating the homes either as GPS points or, more darkly, the inspection markings from search teams.
Most houses in New Orleans are marked with a prominently displayed “X”, the date at top, and the number of bodies found at the bottom. A Biblical marker reminiscent of Exodus, tagging the homes that the Angel of Death had passed over and more chillingly those she visited. And indeed they are still, still, finding bodies in collapsed houses, ravaged by the elements and picked at by animals. Ten months later they are still finding
Is this America?
While Bourbon Street parties into the dawn hours and Uptown the cafes and restaurants buzz, large swaths of New Orleans still lay dark, without power, water, or people.
Lakeview is an affluent area where the water rose high enough to kill and stayed long enough to destroy. FEMA trailers dot rebuilding and work crews populate the neighborhoods during the day, at least relatively. Here, many houses are at least gutted, which creates it’s own visible tragedy. Imagine everything you own; your clothes, wedding albums, children’s toys, furniture, all thrown haphazardly, moldy and rotting onto the side of the road. House after house, block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood, it’s all gone. Each trash pile marking the grave of a family’s history.
Mass graves crowd over lots and into the streets.
Is this America?
When I told my Godmother, who is from Shreveport, that I was going to work with schools in rebuilding New Orleans, she fretted. While many of us see Nawlins as a party mecca, with opulent costumes, sunny afternoon jazz, booze soaked parades, and the prospect of a free flash, locals knew what the truth is. That New Orleans was already sick. The bankrupt school system was arguably the worst in the nation (a valedictorian at one high school failed the exit exam multiple times and scored an 11 on the ACT, which is less than random), violent crime was rampant, the City administration was historically notorious for corruption, the infrastructure was decaying and needing massive repairs, and there was a gaping chasm between the largely White haves and the largely Black have-nots. This thin veneer of coexistence cracked wide open after Katrina, exposing the darker side of New Orleans and the troubling present manifestation of its past history.
Things are different down there. Shotgun wielding police line bridges during disasters and fire over the heads of people fleeing to block their escape. Seven public defenders represent 1,200 defendants, some of whom have been in jail longer than their maximum sentence, if guilty, but have not seen a lawyer. Elders were left to die in nursing homes. Children sat four days on roofs and then were evacuated to the firearm symphony of the Superdome, and wish they stayed on the roof. A girl sat days on a bridge waiting for help within eyesight of a dead man and his brains that had been splattered on the sidewalk.
Schools became shelters and shelters became morgues. Help did not come.
The birthplace of jazz, where African slaves shared brass on Sundays with Whites to create the greatest American art form. The synergy of cultures. The most progressive and free city in the South before the Civil War. Mardi Gras Indians dance to celebrate the unique shared culture, where local tribes absorbed escaped slaves. And Mardi Gras masking allowed people of all races and classes to mix when such interactions were taboo in the North. Spanish, French, African, Indian, English, Caribbean, Creole, Cajun, Catholic, Baptist, Free, Slave, Black, White, American. Like the succulent jambalaya or gumbo, New Orleans was that spicy mixture of cultures whose whole could be greater than its parts.
White and Black parishioners sit in at a Catholic Church demanding the return of a popular Black Priest. A truly diverse circle of compatriots stand outside a home awaiting gutting, holding hands, heads down in prayer, asking God’s help in rebuilding. A Black preacher drives back to New Orleans before FEMA and plucks an elderly White man from his roof, and a White couple scours the streets in their neighbor’s boat for anyone needing help. Churches, schools, homes, and shelters are opened for victims from Houston to Oakland to Maine. Tens of thousands send aid or travel themselves to lend a hand. Ant trails of rebuilding form, but a single ant, or even a few, will not make it. And already, the warm waters of the ocean conspire to wash away nascent rebuilding.
Is this America?
Children talk about Katrina like she was a mean bully, “Katrina took my toys”, and increasingly cry themselves to sleep. Extended families crowd into the few remaining family resources, and people are drinking, drugging and hitting each other more. The “lucky” families live for months in 20 foot long trailers, the only privacy found in the tiny bathroom. And the stress of it all is causing cracks in the psychological defenses that people have put up to make it this far. Finding a place to live, dealing with insurance, keeping track of your family, trying to find a job, worrying about your kids and parents, getting health care, these and many more stresses are weighing on the minds of most every New Orleanian. And a dark specter hovers, a foreboding sense that it really is but for the grace of God that they do not go through it all again in the coming years. Or months.
There are tears welled in every New Orleanian, a deep reservoir just below the surface. A cracking voice in recounting a story, the hand wiping to the eye, pause and clearing of the throat. At other times the psychological levees breach.
When I first visited in January what I saw was heroic. School employees were working, unpaid, to clean schools and get them open. Despite the allocation of significant federal funding, none had arrived to schools themselves, a problem that continues to a lesser degree now. And school employees forced schools open because it needed to be done. Students and employees are traumatized, resources have not materialized, and there are significantly greater needs around mental health support and counseling. This amidst the extreme deficits and segregation that existed before Katrina.
New Orleans is on its knees, and the tide of hurricane season is rising. The best hope is in the prayer that another storm does not curl through the Gulf Coast. While levy repairs are underway, independent evaluations paint an unreassuring picture of the current levees design and strength. The shattered lives from last season are just being collected and reassembled. Another storm, without adequate safeguards, would break New Orleans as we know it.
Katrina compounded the existing problems of New Orleans, it did not create them. If we care, and want to remedy the deficits and rebuild New Orleans as the jewel of a city that it should be we need a sustained investment in the region and its most needy people. We need to act individually, and also pressure political leaders.
- Create lasting partnerships with community organizations in the Gulf Coast. This is person to person, school to school, church to church, business to school etc. Call Habitat for Humanity, sponsor and participate in rebuilding projects down there or bring students up here for summer enrichment programs. And money always helps, as do gifts. I remember hearing of the joy of students in opening backpacks that were designed and donated by other kids, containing school supplies, toys, and the sense that someone else cares. Look on the internet, make a call to a school or service agency, ask them how you can help
and arrange a partnership. Pass the collection plate on the behalf of our most needy. For years to come.
- Political pressure to invest in critical infrastructure, there and throughout the US, and to make good on the current funding promises to the Gulf Coast, and to
insure structural integrity where risks are predictable.
- Pray, and act locally to dismantle the dual America that I am sure you can find nearby
In the final analysis Katrina was merely the match that was dropped in the pool of gasoline that had been collecting in New Orleans. Corrupt politicians, racism, underinvestment in critical infrastructure, environmental degradation, and an attitude that relied on luck to avoid catastrophe rather than contingency planning and preventative investment all were tributaries that drained into New Orleans lowlands. How many other fertile grounds are there for the fire next time.
America has always been an imperfect and evolving dream. Beacon of freedom, haven for slavery. Vast wealth among a sub nation of indigents, or those one bad break short of it. There have always been at least two Americas. Black children wading through feculent waters made this abundantly clear last year. We cannot say that we don’t know. It is up to us now, individually, and as a society to decide whether we have reached the end of the evolutionary chain or whether we will ultimately grow into one nation, with, if not a sense of “liberty and justice for all”, at least shame.
Is this America?
That is a question for each of us to answer as we plow through the inanities of our daily lives, and bodies float by in our peripheral vision.