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Keeping New Orleans in the Headlines

Q U I C K S C A N

It Takes a Village
Rise Like a Phoenix
A Different Song

Touring the Ninth Ward in New Orleans last April was like walking through a bad dream. Many of the houses looked as if they’d been lifted into the air and then dropped. Roofs were ground level. Windows and aluminum siding were shattered and scattered.

It was a surrealist painting brought to life: A beat-up refrigerator sat perched on the side of a road, a child’s doll was lodged high in a tree, the wheel of a bicycle jutted out of a car window.

But only somewhat less unsettling than these images was the quiet that lingered in this seemingly deserted neighborhood: There was no buzz of traffic, no sounds of children playing, no echo of laughter or activity.

Sadly, this was a utopia compared to what residents of the Ninth Ward—and countless other Gulf Coast neighborhoods—lived through in August of last year. After Hurricane Katrina pounded the levees and unleashed the floodwaters, the city of New Orleans became the stage for an epic tragedy, one that continues today.

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It Takes a Village

It’s easy to find culpability when the dust settles. In this case it can be dispersed widely: Humankind can be blamed for the rise in global warming; the levee contractors can be blamed for the barrier that crumbled like a house of cards; the U.S. government can be blamed for its shamefully slow response to the cries of its own citizens.

But the assault on people of the Gulf Coast didn’t end with a storm and a flood. Perhaps the greatest blow has been a lack of progress. Debris removal has been steady in New Orleans, but the job is simply too big. Even more tragic is that many who are displaced have yet to return to their homes.

According to The New York Times, as late as this past June, evacuees traveling from Atlanta, Baton Rouge and Houston were angered to find that fewer than 1,000 of the more than 8,000 housing units were reopened.

That same month, residents of New Orleans’s St. Bernard housing projects—in response to the state’s refusal to grant access to their homes—opened the “Survivor’s Village” out of protest.

Many New Orleanians believe, according to Internet reports, that the state hopes to keep residents out of low-income housing permanently, eager to sell the land to developers.

This raises the question: If the occupants of these housing projects hailed from better neighborhoods, would they have needed to erect a village to protest this enforced homelessness? It’s as if the villagers have been abandoned by the elders of their own tribe.

Rise Like a Phoenix

Still, hope remains. History has shown that rising from the ashes is a Southern skill. Survivors of Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing floods are concerned not only with rebuilding their cities, but conserving them as well.

Not long ago, several Gulf Coast journalists spoke to an editor of this magazine about ways we can help their battered cities:

1) The first is a convenient and effective method of aiding survivors in the wake of this tragedy: prayer. The hurricane and its aftermath may have flooded their streets, but we can prevent a drought of prayers in this era of healing and rejuvenation.

2) Next they suggested monetary donations through Catholic Charities (www.catholiccharitiesusa.org) or through the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (www.svdpusa.org).

3) Lastly, they appealed for legislation in rebuilding Louisiana’s eroding barrier islands, which many experts believe will be gone by the end of the century. This is a long-term solution, but protection from future hurricanes requires more than patching up holes in a levee.

Keeping the residents of New Orleans in our minds, year-round, is also crucial. After the waters receded and survivors trickled back to their homes, national focus on the Gulf Coast started to wane. The media is fickle. Maybe we all are.

But the current status of the city and its displaced persons should never be “old news,” not while the only thing protecting many of them from the elements is a thin piece of tent fabric.

A Different Song

In August of 2004—a year before the hurricane—I had traveled to New Orleans with friends. Walking through the French Quarter, I thought I had stumbled into a different world.

It was a wild blend of music, food and spirits—as if the city itself had a pulse. The atmosphere was distinctly modern and yet ripped from the pages of a jazz-fueled history book. But in hindsight it was the people I remember most. They were the embodiment of trouble-free charm. I was smitten.

When I returned to New Orleans in late April of this year, I was awestruck and deeply saddened. There was still a note of jazz circling the air, but the city played a different song for me: one of bruised endurance. The French Quarter has rebounded, but the outlying areas haven’t fared as well.

Most saddening is that New Orleans residents who still languish in tents and in trailers are in a sort of hellish limbo—life in suspension. Our country failed these citizens on two fronts: to protect them from Katrina and, sadly, to adequately provide for them now.

As the one-year anniversary of this tragedy nears, it’s important that we look back for wisdom and forward for hope and possibility. To turn away in pity and do nothing is to cower in apathy. That ineffective strategy—very much like the levees—just doesn’t hold water.—C.H.


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