Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Katrina Two Years Later


The Saturday before Katrina hit, I went yardsale-ing. When I got home at about 10AM and saw that Katrina was headed our way (at the time, a predicted landfall at Mobile, AL), I called the branch president of my church to ask him if he was evacuating and he asked me, "why?"

I evacuated for five hurricanes in five years in New Orleans. The four previous times (Lilly, Isidore, Ivan, and Dennis) had been false alarms, but I felt good in having left, because I knew from personal observation of my surroundings (holy crap, there's water on every side of me) and articles I read in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and National Geographic, that a hurricane in New Orleans could mean disaster.

Most people that I knew in New Orleans shrugged off hurricanes as no big deal. I was made fun of for evacuating twice in 10 days for Lilly and Isidore (in my defense, the city got 9 inches of rain in 9 hours from that storm). I happened to be out of town when Tropical Storm Cindy hit. It did more damage than any hurricane (up to that point). The general attitude was, we spend all the energy and effort evacuating and then nothing happens. People got complacent. Complacency kills.

But, the people that died from Katrina weren't all complacent victims. Surely hundreds upon hundreds of people that died, did so, because they were poor, without vehicles or transportation, credit cards, and the means to escape to somewhere safe. We can try and blame the victims, but that isn't right. If you're elderly, disabled, poor, and without a car; all your family lives right around you, and they too are poor, have no car, and no credit, what do you do? You stick it out because you have no other choice. The government was not prepared to help those that couldn't help themselves. The resources were overtaxed, ill-prepared, and insufficient. Hundreds died because the system failed them, and then tried to turn public opinion against them and, ultimately, to blame them for their own demise.

Last year, at the first anniversary, I didn't have any problem with my emotions. I was too busy with the dissertation, teaching, helping people recover, and trying to find a job after graduation to really stop and think about how hard it was. This year, as I had more time to think about it, I had a really hard time. I broke down in tears at one point, thinking about how my friends were now scattered across the land, in a Big Easy diaspora that will likely never reverse itself. I have felt the pains of having to leave New Orleans, and I don't like them. It's a love/hate relationship. I love the place, the culture, the food, the weather (save for August), Tulane, the pace of life; but, the crime, political corruption, exorbitant living expenses coupled with bad customer service make life there aggravatingly difficult sometimes. Don't get me wrong, I love my new home, but now I know what it means, to miss New Orleans.

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
And miss it each night and day
I know I’m not wrong... this feelings gettin stronger
The longer, I stay away

Miss them moss covered vines...
the tall sugar pines
Where mockin birds used to sing
And Id like to see that lazy Mississippi...hurryin into spring

The moonlight on the bayou.......a Creole tune.... that fills the air
I dream... about magnolias in bloom......and I’m wishin I was there
--Louis Armstrong

But Satchmo's song is about the place, and I find myself missing the people too. Katrina robbed us of our friends. It drove our neighbors away. Colleagues didn't return after the storm. I miss the place, but I miss the people even more.

PART TWO My disdain of Politicians
My government's handling of Hurricane Katrina, at the federal, state, and local levels, was un fracaso total.

After reading John Barry's book, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, it becomes apparent that the cycles of death and destruction, at the expense of Mississippi Valley African-Americans, may never end. If I had any hope after Katrina, it was that the flood might have washed away some of the most notorious business-as-usual corrupt local politicians in New Orleans; I was wrong to hope.

Nagin does nothing. The President didn't even mention the Gulf Coast in his State of the Union address. The permits process to rebuild is byzantine, and not geared towards helping people of meager means re-establish themselves in their homes. The poor will lose their homes. Many of the elderly in Gertown and Pigeontown will most likely live out their days in their formaldehyde-tainted FEMA trailers.

I worry that right now, politicians and their cronies are divvying up the 9th Ward and planning to use the 2005 Supreme Court decision on imminent domain to seize properties along the Industrial Canal in the name of industry and commerce.

It just amazes me how politics, personal vainglory, and incompetence have allowed the Army Corps of Engineers to do the wrong thing time after time when it comes to flood control in the Mississippi Valley. John Barry's book should be required reading for politicians.

Rumor has it that Chertoff might replace Gonzalez as Attorney General. I hold him just as responsible as "Brownie" for allowing the Superdome and Convention Center tragedies to transpire. I voted for Bush and for Nagin. After seeing the fruits of having put my trust in these men, I have no faith in the political system anymore.

PART THREE My Spiritual Growth

In conclusion, I’d like to conclude with the most powerful example of meaningful worship that I have ever seen. Of the 700+ members of the church living in the New Orleans First Ward, Chalmette Ward, and Uptown Branch boundaries, my little family was one of only two that did not flood. We lived only six blocks from our branch president. His house was raised 4 feet off the ground, and he had water up to my navel in his home. After overseeing the refugees assembled and living in the stake center 3 hours away in Alexandria, Louisiana for 3 weeks after the storm, he, at the New Orleans stake president’s request, moved into the only church building in New Orleans that did not flood. He had lost his home, had to be there to tend to his business, and the stake president had to order him to stay at the church, finally persuading him that he needed to live there so that the church wouldn’t be looted. During the day, with his family still living in Alexandria, he worked on his business, and by night, he helped coordinate the relief effort that the Church was establishing. He is a small and physically weak man. He has epilepsy and daily seizures, but his desire to worship meaningfully makes him a spiritual powerhouse. Let me explain why.

In late October, some two months after the storm hit, the Church finally put the branch president’s house on the schedule for home-gutting. Two crews showed up on a Saturday morning, and began tossing all of his worldly possessions onto his tiny front yard. A pile of putrid filth of what had been his life was, in front of his eyes, bulldozed into a dumptruck. Ruined photographs, ruined food storage for his family of 7, a true years’ supply for seven people, was thrown into his yard and then hauled away. He endured this. He worked as hard as he could despite his frailties. The smell was so bad that some people (myself included) vomited repeatedly when the wind blew a certain way. About noon, the leader of the group of workers came to me and said that they had other work orders and that they had to leave and go work on them. These were orders to remove fallen trees off of people’s yards; people that electricity in their homes already; people that hadn’t flooded. I saw his face go ashen. He pulled me aside and said, “please go and talk to these bretheren, I cannot do this work myself, and I’ve been waiting for two months for their help. Find out if there’s anything that can be done.” I went and talked to the crew leader, and he made a phone call, and they were told to stay and finish the job. Elated, I went looking for the branch president. I couldn’t locate him. I went outside, around back of the ruin that was now his home, and when I rounded the back corner, I saw him, on his knees in his shed. I heard him utter the following:

“Heavenly Father, if it be thy will that these bretheren go and help someone else, I understand and accept that, but if it be they will, please, let them stay. Nevertheless, thy will be done. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

That is the kind of meaningful worship that we should seek. When we are able, in a time of abject need, to surrender our own needs and desires to the will of the Lord, and allow aid that we want to go to others who might need it, THEN do we catch a glimpse of a miniscule portion of what the Savior did in his sacrifice and agony that night in Gethsemane. His lesson is what I had to learn from Katrina. My branch president was trying to be like Jesus; we should allow follow his example.


Emily said...

Thanks for that post Mac. Those pictures are horrific and I can't begin to imagine what that must have been like for you and for many others that had to go through it. What a sweet prayer your friend offered and how much can we learn from him. I have a hard time accepting the Lord's will without having to face losing everything I have. It brought tears to my eyes to read it.

swampbaby said...

Thanks for this post. What an incredible experience (incredible as in WOW, not as in "awesome!")you have had. Thanks for passing your insights along so we can learn vicariously.

The Fonnesbeck's said...

You will be so glad someday that you have written about these experiences.....I know that you miss parts of New Orleans, but South Carolina is truly beautiful (as you know from living in Georgia). I think you guys will grow to love it tremendously.

A fabulous blog entry! :)

hammy said...

I definitely know what you mean about missing NOLA. I miss the NOLA that I experienced. It is hard to go back because not only is the city different, but my friends are gone. We only know a small handful of people in the branch now. Almost all of my nonmember friends have spread out across the country. It is definitely not the same place, but it still is such an important part of who I am. Your story about Dave doesn't surprise me at all. He is such a humble man, and I'm not at all surprised that his prayer was answered. His family is among those I'm sure already got a nice mansion waiting for them in heaven.

Cindy said...

Man, those pictures are still hard to look at! Especially the ones of inside my house! In some ways, that seems like another lifetime ago.