Two years ago today, Hurricane Katrina tore through the city of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Today, we take a break from our regularly scheduled knitting for a brief culture report -- the good, the bad and the ugly:
Scads of our people still are living in trailers in our front yards. Our insurance companies screwed us over, we've run out of savings and now it's either "Design on a Dime" for those of us with the money for building materials and the skills to do the job ourselves ... or a painful waiting game for those of us too aged, unskilled or impoverished to hang drywall ourselves. New Orleans is a heavily elderly city, and when old folks run out of money to pay other people to repair their homes ... well, you know. It just doesn't get done, and it's not their fault.
The ray of hope? A program called The Road Home, which offers grant money to help people repair their homes, provided they actually plan to live in them. I am grateful that I had enough savings to remove the tree from Mom's house, fix her roof and get her interior repaired, livable and painted, but we still applied to the Road Home Program for help in finishing the job.
The home below is only a few blocks from my high school. The water was about eight feet deep around here. My old school is back up and running, but this family still has a tree on their house and a blue tarp for a roof. The car, previously a prized vintage vehicle, was smashed by a falling tree which tumbled across it on the way down. The black mass to the right of the car is the overturned root ball of that tree -- the trunk, about five feet in diameter, which was blocking the street, has been sawed off and hauled away. That's a tire snagged on a root on the far right:
And the car? It didn't belong to the white house. It belonged to a neighbor down the street.
Repairs have not even begun in huge parts of the city. The unflooded section has largely come back to life, even though many wind- and tree-damaged homes are stalled in progress, their owners overwhelmed and out of money. But vast stretches of New Orleans remain untouched, ungutted, and un-come-home-to. Their former occupants, about half the city's Pre-K population, remain in Houston and other cities.
This is as far as one of my relatives was able to get on her home. It is now gutted and ready to repair. She has applied for a low-interest loan and grant money so she can begin work. See the water marks? There is a high water mark, and various lower levels as the floodwaters were pumped out of the city over a period of weeks:
Fly-by-night contractors are still ripping people off. We can only pray for instant Karma, and hope they get their balls caught in a nail gun. If they ever actually pick one up, that is.
The city's homeless population has doubled. Many people made homeless by Katrina have joined the ranks of those who were already homeless before the storm hit. A considerable number of homeless people are camping out in other people's abandoned homes.
As a result, the fire department has been busy.
Rats Rule. Where do rats go when the water rises? They go where it's dry. 80% of New Orleans flooded during Katrina, so the surviving rats from that portion of the city swam to the unflooded section. And? They have been reproducing quite well. The part of the city that stayed dry now has a rat population to rival Medieval Europe.
Fortunately, one of my Mom's cats thinks that he is Ted Nugent, and rats are deer.
Katrina is still killing people. Or, welcome to Hospital Rwanda! If you get seriously sick in New Orleans today, you have a 47% greater chance of dying from your ailment than you had before Katrina shattered our health-care system. Why? If you're poor, or working and uninsured, Charity Hospital is gone. And if you have insurance and can otherwise afford a doctor, there simply aren't enough doctors and hospital beds to go around.
New Orleans used to be a great place to live -- now it's a great place to die. I know that seems amazing, as we are arguably in the First World and all that, but consider that only one fourth of the city's major hospitals are back online. The numbers get worse when you consider how many smaller hospitals, dialysis clinics, and other second-tier hospitals are gone. This isn't due to poor care standards. Nurses and doctors are doing the best they can with what they have. It's simply due to a shortage of bed space and a doctor-to-patient ratio to rival any third world nation. It's also due to the fact that one of the finest trauma centers in the world -- Charity Hospital -- is gone.
The remains of about a hundred and thirty storm victims remain unclaimed. A memorial for these unknown victims of Katrina soon will be erected. Update: I made a trancsription error when I first posted this; I accidentally typed only "thirty."
Se Habla Espanol. This isn't a bad thing at all, it's just new, and interesting, and it takes a little getting used to. The flavor of New Orleans is changing from "Creole" to "L.A. South." New Orleans had a fair representation of Latino food and culture pre-Katrina -- and some mighty fine hot tamales, I might add -- but now it's like, "hello, carnitas! And pass the menudo, please."
Menudo is a lot like boudin -- once you acquire the taste, you like it a lot. And, like boudin, you really don't want to know what's in it.
I love the cultural cross-pollination -- it took the Latino drywall and roofing crews about three weeks to figure out how to make crawfish empanadas. And I might add that New Orleans enjoyed an unusually festive Cinco de Mayo this year.
Side note -- I would be soooo grateful if one of y'all would tell me how to make the "~" sit on top of the "n" like it's supposed to. I can't figure out how to make Blogger do it.
Vera's marker has been demolished. This does not bode well for the karma of the empty lot on the corner of Jackson Avenue and Magazine Street, just a block away from Garden District Needlework.
In the first desperate days after Katrina passed through and the city began to flood, a hit-and-run driver ran over a woman named Vera, who later died on the street from her injuries. Neighbors and strangers on the street had no alternative but to construct a makeshift tomb on the sidewalk. Her body was covered with some plastic sheeting and people arranged bricks both to hold the sheeting in place and to provide a modicum of dignity by marking the spot with what they had at hand. Someone painted a makeshift headstone on these bricks: SHRINE -- VERA -- 8-30-05 -- GRAVE -- NEVER MOVE:
Well ... somebody moved it.
After Vera's body was recovered, the marker bricks stayed for over a year and a half. During that time, steady offerings of flowers, cards and Mardi Gras beads appeared at the marker. But the last time I passed by, the bricks were gone, and a real estate agent's sign has appeared in its place.
Vera's spirit, however, is still there. I don't think the real estate agent is aware of that fact.
In the photo below, the sign closer to the camera is planted exactly where Vera's body lay:
President Bush today ventured into the city to mark the anniversary of Katrina, two years after he stalled on taking charge of the situation -- two years after he utterly and completely failed to dislodge himself from his vacation in order to manage one of the worst crises in American history.
Two years too late. In his speech today, he said that he understood what people were going through.
I am absolutely certain that he does not.
I find it hard to believe that two whole years have gone by since I was up to my neck in wet, filthy and frightened animals. My mind holds a dizzying array of images from the past two years: at one of the emergency animal shelters, I recall a veterinarian in blue scrubs, trying to catch a short nap on top of a pallet of donated dog food ... the trash heap in front of the house I grew up in ... an elderly lady planting flowers in front of her still-ruined home this past spring ... the bones of a small child discovered months after the storm, found by one of our SPCA officers in pursuit of a stray dog in the 9th Ward ... a truck resting in the branches of an ancient live oak tree ... dead cows and horses in other trees ... an enormous barge perched atop a levee ... armies of ruined refrigerators lining the streets ... FEMA food tents late at night ... the vast stretch of raw earth, destruction and nothingness where the town of Waveland, Mississippi once stood ... boats on rooftops ... an overturned New Orleans city bus wedged sideways across a narrow street ... heavily armed Guardsmen in camouflage riding around in Humvees ... and vast stretches of my home city rendered completely unrecognizable.
And the smell.
I also remember the stars shining over the black and vacant city.
Local pianist Phillip Melancon recalls this phenomenon in song:
"Stars coming out in New Orleans ... for the first time see their grace ... what a price we must pay in New Orleans ... to see God's freckled face.."
When I talked to Lisa Louie tonight, she reminded me that you can't come to closure with a tragedy when you are still in the middle of it. Lisa survived Hurricane Iniki in 1992, a devastating storm that hit Hawaii only days after Hurricane Andrew visited his wrath here on the mainland.
It takes a long, long time to come to terms with a disaster of this nature. If you were lucky enough to be able to repair your own home, you can't start emotional healing while half of your neighborhood is still a rubble heap. There is the dreadful combination of joy and guilt that your home was spared the worst of the flood when others were not, and a deeper guilt in the knowledge that your own property is mostly repaired and functional when other people are still crammed into tiny white trailers or even living on the street. There is the fear and anxiety over when you will see some of your friends and relatives again, if they will ever come home, and what will happen in the long run to your home town.
And if you worked in the rescue and recovery efforts, there are still the nagging doubts. Did I try hard enough? Could I have done more?
I am haunted by the voice of a woman on one of the animal-rescue phone lines, begging for help. She was in her attic, with her dog and her cell phone. She had heard the animal rescue number on the radio. The water was rising. "Please," she begged. "Please, somebody come get us. I need to break the attic window so we can get out on the roof."
I had taken down her address, confirmed it, and was in the middle of giving her some instructions when she was cut off.
Silence. I felt like someone had punched me.
I ran to the triage table and handed over her information, making sure that it was dispatched immediately as critical. That was the only thing in my power to do.
I have to believe that the call just dropped. Cell phone service was crashing everywhere.
Or maybe she dropped her phone in the water.
I have to believe that she and her dog got through the attic window and out onto the roof.
I try to envision them on the roof, looking up into the night, waiting for the helicopters.