We are all aware that today, August 29th, 2007, marks the 2nd anniversary of when Hurricane Katrina made her second landfall near the tiny coastal community known as Buras-Triumph, located on the the southeastern most peninsula of Louisiana, jutting out into the gulf. Of course, New Orleans lay waiting less than 100 miles to the north and slightly east of Buras-Triumph, and immediately south (and below) the massive Lake Ponchartrain. Never before has a city in the US been so desperately caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, and the devastation, horrors, and misery that followed will forever be etched in the collective consciousness of all Americans.
Leading up to that fateful Monday everyone’s worst fears were realized when it became painfully clear that New Orleans would not be spared the long dreaded direct hit of a hurricane as she had so fortuitously avoided in years past. On the 27th an evacuation was recommended by Mayor Nagin; the following day the evacuation became mandatory. Of course, by that point the change from suggestion to mandate became irrelevant; if you were able to leave the city, you were well on your way.
Then, from the perspective of the outside world, there was an eerie calm as the storm and evacuation effectively cut New Orleans off from the rest of us. We had the images of the devastated Alabama and Mississippi coastal regions, and the clear blue skies that Katrina left in her wake. But it wouldn’t be until days later the rest of the world learned of just how bad things really were…
I feel very fortunate that I had the opportunity to spend some time in New Orleans in the years leading up to Hurricane Katrina. My wife has two uncles whose families have called Louisiana home since before she was born. She is particularly close with her Uncle Brian and Aunt Ernestine, and cousins Heidi and Chris, both of whom are close in age to us. They lived in the suburb of New Orleans known as Chalmette, the seat of St. Bernard Parish. Chalmette is located on the eastern banks of the Mississippi river, and one can’t help but marvel at the series of canals traversed as you drive there from the city. Chalmette is also historically relevant in that it is the location of The Battle of New Orleans, regarded as the final major battle of the War of 1812, where in 1815 Colonel Andrew Jackson’s forces soundly defeated the British. Now Chalmette will be forever known as being the seat of the doomed St. Bernard Parish. When Katrina hit and the storm surged, a man-made commercial channel known as the ‘Mississippi Gulf River Outlet’ that borders Chalmette to the east and that connects the Gulf and New Orleans inner harbor, flooded and destroyed the entire town and Parish. Aunt Ernestine and Uncle Brian’s home was under water up to the gutters. And now their neighborhood is a virtual ghost-town. Fortunately they, like many residents of St. Bernard’s, did not wait for any suggestions or mandates to evacuate, and had the means to do so. Chris was up in Connecticut at the time and out of harm’s way. Heidi’s experience of Hurricane Katrina was far more harrowing than that of the rest of her family.
Heidi is a Nurse, and Heidi is a Hero. When the levees broke, and the home she grew up in was being inundated with the flood waters, Heidi was working at New Orleans’ Charity Hospital. Charity has been a landmark in the New Orleans medical community, and is the second oldest public hospital in the country, serving the city’s poor for over 250 years. It would take days for the rescue efforts to reach the facility when it was finally evacuated on September 3rd. In that time Heidi and her fellow nurses, doctors, and staff worked tirelessly around the clock to keep patients alive in the severely damaged hospital, resorting to manually hand-pumping ventilators in some cases, all while chaos ensued in the streets below. It was a joyous moment of relief when we received word that Heidi, and her patients and colleagues, were finally evacuated from the disaster on flat bed trucks. You can read about it here.
In the two years that followed, Uncle Brian and Aunt Ernestine relocated to Mississippi for some time, and have since returned to the area, although in a different town. Chalmette is essentially still a wasteland, with overgrown lots and yet to be cleared rubble comprising their old neighborhood. Brian still must return to the empty property from time to time, as he is fined is the grass is left uncut. Chris was newly commissioned in the Coast Guard at the time of Katrina, and he too has returned home. Only Heidi has remained in New Orleans the entire time. She continued to work as a nurse at various hospitals and found housing in the relatively unscathed areas of the city’s center. They are the lucky ones.
This family perfectly illustrates the dichotomy of what is taking place in the aftermath of the disaster. It is truly a tale of two cities. At the heart of New Orleans, the French Quarter and downtown, the city is seemingly well on its way to returning to its former glory. But travel only a few miles outside in any direction and the recovery is woefully inadequate with only a few restored homes and business peppered amongst the destruction. People like Aunt Ernestine and Uncle Brian had every reason to remain in Mississippi where they had already begun to pick up the pieces of their lives and reassemble them. Chris, in the Coast Guard, could live just about anywhere in the world if he wanted. And we tried to get Heidi to come up to Philadelphia, and begin anew here. After all, good nurses are always in demand, and she too could live and work anywhere in the country. They all chose to return and rebuild home.
And thank God for that, because if New Orleans is ever going to recover, it is through the efforts of people like this, and not a massive rebuilding as promised by the government. Everyone down there has come to grips with the fact that little help is coming. With FEMA money wasted on nonsensical and easily corruptible “debit cards,” melting unused ice, and trailers reeking of formaldehyde and sinking in the mud, along with sole bid contractors dragging their feet in reconstruction efforts, the residents of New Orleans willing to stay or return are being choked with the red tape of a failed bureaucracy.
While the French Quarter and the Superdome and the Convention Center may lie at the heart New Orleans geographically and in the minds of outsiders, if you were able to spend any time experiencing the city as a whole you would understand its beating heart lies within the surrounding Parishes and their culturally diverse and hospitable residents.
How is it that there appears to be a bottomless pit of money and effort devoted to rebuilding a divided country in Iraq, whose borders were drawn by outsiders in the first place?
It is time that we as Americans demand that our government delivers on its promise to do all it can in restoring New Orleans to the once proud, vibrant and unique city it has always been. The people of the Crescent City are going to do it by themselves anyway. They just deserve the same help our President is so determined to provide to the people of Iraq.