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
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
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
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
through the Society of St. Vincent de
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