Coming up on the 5-year anniversary of Katrina and the levee failures, our Executive Director told the staff the other day she is concerned that people across the country may not realize that the devastation caused by Katrina still remains. “People think everything’s back to normal.”
Coming up on five years already, huh? Damn, time flies when you’re trying to rebuild a city from the greatest man-made disaster in the history of the United States. (Can’t seem to write about this without the obligatory melodramatic sentence). For those of us who live, work and love our city, the epic flooding has become not just a physical, emotional and economic obstacle, it’s a temporal bookmark. In a city that marks the passing of time by less traditional seasons (i.e. crawfish, The Saints, Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest), the absolute linear progression of life is bisected not by the Mississippi, but by Hurricane Katrina. Simply, there is Pre-Katrina and Post-Katrina. Some would say if you didn’t know New Orleans before the water, you don’t know New Orleans. I would argue that if you don’t know New Orleans after the water, you don’t know America.
About 15 blocks from Brad Pitt’s Make it Right green project, a massive and highly touted redevelopment of the Lower 9th Ward, exists a pair of sisters. They continue to live in a flooded, un-gutted “house”. The moldy drywall is accented by wet insulation that has crept out of the crumbling walls. The roof leaks where the sisters were hacked out of the attic four days after Katrina made landfall. The hole, covered by a tattered blue FEMA tarp, contributes to the dampness of the floorboards and the profuse smell of mold and rotting wood. These are the same blocks where Anderson Cooper made his career recounting the human tragedy of Katrina, the same neighborhood that was visited by hundreds of the most powerful politicians in the world, where millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers brought a second flood to a two square mile neighborhood. Spike Lee centered his documentary on these blocks eventually winning three Emmy Awards for his efforts. The whole world’s microscope was focused on one neighborhood and these two sisters might as well have been microscopic. One sister suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and the other is developmentally disabled. Coming up on five years already, huh?
I’ve got another man who has been living in his car for the last 4 years. He gets treated for anxiety, PTSD and his preferred method of self-medication, alcohol. Last couple of years he’s tried to commit suicide by tying a rope around his neck, connecting it to his car bumper and putting it in drive. He gave up on these clumsy attempts and dedicated his life to numbing his psychic pain through the bottle. “I lost my tools in the water. Nobody is going to hire a guy like me now. Shit man! I used to have everything.” He still talks about seeing bloated bodies decomposing in the water. Did I mention my client is a Vietnam War Veteran? Apparently, Charlie has nothing on Katrina.
In Central City there is an abandoned church that is over 170 years old. It was built by slaves in their free time, a memorial to the brutality of chattel slavery and the importance of personal conviction. One hundred and seventy years of American history, a civil war and countless hurricanes failed to crumble its historic walls. But when the levees failed, four and a half feet of water saturated the plaster walls and opened the slate roof to the swampy elements. It is no longer home to a vibrant congregation praising the gospel, but three homeless clients who have embraced its abandonment as home. Their personal conviction is the importance of housing, not religion.
Five years already, huh? In a city older than America five years is pretty short. Go ahead and tell that to my clients who have spent the last five years trying to get home.