New Orleans residents ponder the future
Carol Smith, a Summit County resident for two-and-a-half years, recently revisited her old home in New Orleans to check on the rebuilding efforts. In her second and final story, she explains more about a culture still struggling with the impact of the hurricanes.Wealthier families lives have been changed, but some evacuation plans were clearly better than others. Some of my friends had a unique plan. My friend Barbara told me, “Pete and I were going to go to Italy for our 20th anniversary, so now we will just take the three boys with us.” Before the Katrina disaster, their three boys attended exclusive private and Catholic schools. They were building a multi-million dollar dream house, had a lucrative business, a 63 vintage corvette and all the trappings of success. My husband and I visited with them during Christmas. The business had taken on 23 feet of water; the machinery was ruined along with the corvette. They sold the business for one-third of its pre-Katrina value. They are educated and know how do deal with insurance companies and FEMA.
They will do better than most. Very active in the New Orleans Carnival Parade organizations and culture, they would never consider leaving New Orleans. Pete, Barbara and their family are at the same intersection as most of the family and friends we know there. People are asking themselves where and how so we start again? How do we put our lives back together? Lives were changed forever and, for some people, the easiest answer was to start somewhere else. However, for many families – particularly for the divorced ones – relocation is not easy. For many “Katrina kids” as they are now called, Mom evacuated to Houston and Dad went to Tennessee. Families have been separated and many have no direction or ideas how to put the pieces of their lives back together. Only 1 percent of the New Orleans public schools have reopened. The Katrina story is about more than the Convention Center and Superdome stories. Katrina impacted everyone.As most of us saw on CNN’s around the clock coverage, many evacuation plans were pitifully inadequate. “Wait until the water gets to high and wave for a helicopter” does not seem like a plan at all. Some people tried to leave to late. Some did not want to leave at all. However, the sensationalized stories on television tell a small part of the story.
Many working class families there are still homeless. People are living in tents in parks in a major American city. The Louisiana’s Governors office is reporting 6,000 missing Americans unaccounted for in Louisiana alone. While we were in New Orleans for the holidays, a mother Joyce Green was uncovered from the rubble. Her death, and others like it, will not be recorded as official Katrina deaths. The actual death toll is much higher than the reported figures of the already devastating 1,071 Americans. For most families, New Orleans is not just a zip code or where they live and work. New Orleans is a way of life. It’s about sharing Gumbo at your neighbors because their Dad caught some extra crabs. It’s about family and friends looking for any tradition or reason to party and be together. It’s about the Mardi Gras tradition, not the drunken one you see on the television every year, but the centuries old tradition of Kings, Queens and Mardi Gras balls. It’s about staying true to our French, Italian and Irish heritage while being uniquely American. As politicians quarrel and point fingers, the people of New Orleans tear down mildewed walls, return to their homes to salvage wedding china and silverware. They call across the country and ask relatives for replacement baby pictures of their children. They try to dig through the mud that was once their home to search for generations old family Rosaries. The toxic water sat for more than three weeks in some homes.
In New Orleans people ask each other “Where was your water line?” There is a line on almost every home indicating how much of the home was submerged. However, some homes do not have water lines as the water reached over the roofs in some areas. They are easy to find. The homes without a water line have furniture and refrigerators on the roofs. The trash and waste are toxic there. Mold levels are so high inside homes many homeowners are required to gut houses. According to testing by the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, a nonprofit agency of scientist lawyers and environmental experts homeowners must remove drywall, furniture, carpeting and other water logged items completely. Beams should be washed with bleach. The piles of toxic trash sit everywhere. As an avid recycler in Summit, I wondered where all the toxic trash would go. That’s when I realized the Gulf Coast’s tragedy is America’s environmental tragedy.Some are saying New Orleans should not be rebuilt. Although many of the great cities of the world are under sea level and rely on levees or dykes, I can understand the hesitation. From the outside, New Orleans looks only like a crime filled, gambling and drinking vacation spot. The “City that Care Forgot” is much more than our poor public schools and crime. It is a source of 30 percent of the nation’s seafood supply as well as a rich source of oil. We are a people of great tradition and pride; New Orleans was part of the landscape before people were called republicans, democrats or Americans. However it is all of us who will loose this great American treasure if we do not really commit ourselves to rebuilding. The tourist area of the French Quarter was basically unaffected as it was the original part of the city established on the highest ground. However without dedication to rebuilding and repopulating the lower areas where the working class poor lived, New Orleans will perish. Who will wait tables for the tourist or create the great Jazz music the city is so well known for? Yet, within the devastation, beautiful things are happening.
People are providing housing for strangers. Neighbors are pitching in to help neighbors with clean up. Hope is stronger than ever there. The people seem more determined than ever to hold onto their dignity and traditions. The heart and soul of New Orleans lives on in her people wherever they may be and whatever roof they have over their heads. Without national support for a real rebuilding of New Orleans, the culture as well as many more American lives will be lost. Saturday, Jan. 21 has been declared Louisiana Recovery Day by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. Town hall meetings will be held throughout the south of Louisiana to allow citizens to comment on recovery efforts. For now, the future of the Gulf Region hangs in the balance. We are thankful for the support of our friends here. My garage was filled to the roof with donations for Katrina evacuees during those first weeks after the storm. A stranger put $100 bill on the porch with a small note that said, “I hope this helps!” It did! Many evacuees headed west looking for work with only three summer clothing outfits and sandals. They arrived on that October weekend during the wettest snow I have ever seen here. Some called from the driveway saying, “We’re in your driveway in sandals and it’s snowing, do you have any shoes for us?” Thankfully we were able to help because many of our friends and neighbors in Summit and Eagle helped us. Every item was much needed and found a home with a local Katrina survivor or someone on the Gulf Coast. Let’s keep these Americans in our thoughts. It gives them great hope to know that they are not forgotten.
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