Sunday, August 29, 2010

Five Years from our Date with Katrina

As today is the five-year anniversary of the walloping of Louisiana by Katrina, today seems an appropriate day to repost one of the more important things I've ever written (not that it has a lot of competition). This was an e-mail I sent out to most of my friends a couple of weeks after Katrina hit us: September 12, 2005, the first day following the storm during which I had both power and internet access. I lived in Louisiana during Katrina and worked disaster relief, and it changed me. Here's what I had to say then, a lot of which is still hopefully worthy of some thought today. I certainly still stand behind it, despite the fact that I didn't even know who Kenny Chesney was back then.

Here's the thing: we've all seen disasters happen before. We saw horrific images of the Asian tsunami, we viewed shocking video of the events in New York and Washington on September 11. We prayed for the victims, we wished them well, maybe we even sent a little money... and then we got on with our lives. It was terrible, but it was kind of unreal: after all, most of us weren't actually there in Asia when disaster struck. The number of people directly impacted by 9/11 wasn't so huge that most of us were actually at Ground Zero. We feel a disconnect from it all, because we haven't seen it with our own eyes: it's just pictures and sounds on a screen, just like what we see all the time in our prime time dramas and big-budget motion pictures... except in those motion pictures, we know the backstories of the main characters, so perhaps we have more reason to care than we do for people we'll never meet and don't know anything about.

And in the grand scheme of things... so what? So thousands of people died in Katrina, or the tsunami, or hundreds died in New York. Not to belittle that loss, but many more people than that lose their lives quite regularly in places like the war-torn Middle East, or places like Sudan in Africa. Most of us in what we laughably refer to as "the civilized world" never hear about this stuff, or if we do, we don't care that much. Not that we're terrible people (although, no doubt, some of us are): it's just that it's all a world away, we're not there, we don't see it, it's easy to convince ourselves that it doesn't exist.

Not so today for me. I live in southeast Louisiana. One week after what's being called the worst national disaster in the history of the country, tidings are still grim. I thank God that I'm luckier than most: all I've lost have been a couple of job opportunities, a really nice fence, and several days of my life to cleaning the dead branches and fallen trees from my property. I may not have a permanent job, and my lawn may still be an unholy mess, but I have a wife, savings, my possessions, a life. My family so far seems to be safe, although I still haven't managed to locate a few of them. Relatively speaking, I'm extremely lucky.

I guess I'm writing this to help people understand how very real and how very life-destroying this is. I live 30 miles from what was once the booming metropolis of New Orleans. I've driven throughout Louisiana since the storm and seen firsthand the damage here. I've visited shelters and relief distribution centers and spoken to people there. And worst of all, I've heard the spin being put out by the people in power about how much better things are, and I know enough to know how lying or clueless they truly are.

If there are any silver linings here (and I've looked desperately to find one), it's that the truly poor of New Orleans might eventually see more money than they ever have, and that more and more Louisianians are coming over to my long-held political viewpoint that both the Republicans and the Democrats of America are more interested in political infights than they are in helping their constituents.

As a technology consultant for the state government (a temporary job I was very lucky to find), I drove out to inspect storm damage today, and I saw scenes of destruction that will haunt me for a long time. I traveled to the small town of Bogalusa, in the northeast corner of southeast Louisiana (if that doesn't make any sense to you, go find it on a map and you'll see what I mean), a place many, many miles inland from where the storm struck, a beautiful little town where I used to go swimming as a boy.

On the way, I saw a huge, majestic forest of pine, each tree easily over 100 feet tall... and every single one of the hundreds of trees was standing precariously at about a 30 degree angle. It was like some twisted vision from a Tim Burton film.

I passed other forests with all kinds of trees, forests I'd loved as a kid, forests where literally every other tree, or more, lay on its side. Oaks, magnolias, you name it. It's difficult to imagine unless you see it first hand.

I saw oak trees, mighty oak trees, knocked down, crushing trees, homes, churches, and businesses. In many cases, the uprooted trees brought up with them huge sections of earth, clods of dirt and roots bigger than you, me, and every single book in my library combined. And I've got a lot of books.

I passed well-kept shacks, undoubtedly inhabited by some of the poorest elements of society (and there are a LOT of poor people in rural Louisiana, white, black, hispanic, you name it), with trees through their roofs, tearing gaping holes so big that I could clearly see into the interior of the house as I drove by. I passed middle-class homes, the kind of nice, modest place where you or I might live, torn to bits: homes with every single shingle on the roof missing, with trees through the walls, with shattered windows, with the entire roof blown off. I've never seen such devastation. I've never seen with my own eyes so many homes destroyed.

I even passed several mansions on huge, sprawling estates. With almost no exceptions, they fared extremely well and escaped almost all damage. Figures.

I was so amazed by the sheer number of leaning, broken, shattered, or just plain missing utility poles on my journey, that I tried counting the number of power lines lying on the road that my car ran over. Somewhere around 15 or 16, I lost count. I must have passed over sixty lines on the road, and many times that number of poles broken in some fashion. Small wonder that when I got to Bogalusa, they had no power, nor did they expect to for quite a long time to come.

And remember, this is all over a week AFTER the storm hit us, here in the United States of America, the richest and most technologically advanced country in the history of the world. And this is all in Bogalusa, far from the hardest-hit areas in Biloxi and New Orleans. This is the stuff they don't talk about on the national news, and there are many, many communities just like this one. Hundreds of communities that you never saw anything about on the TV, that you never read anything about in the papers, and that your money and donations never came anywhere near.

When I arrived in the city itself, I found a lot of excited people. Why? Because the Popeyes, now one of the only sources of fresh food in a 20-mile radius, had finally opened. And the lines were long. Everywhere there were signs of destruction: here, a business without a roof; there, a gas station where almost all of the fixtures, including light poles, pumps, and covered areas, lay on their side. Near the middle of town, I saw a huge shopping center with most of the roof gone. There was very little gas, and very little food. Debris littered... well, everything... everywhere you looked. A few isolated homes and businesses have power and food, but nobody has any communication with the outside world. All the cell phone towers are down, and even if you are one of the lucky ones that has phone service, you can't complete a call outside the Bogalusa area. And just like Baton Rouge and most of the rest of southeast Louisiana, it's a bit rare to find a business sign, like a grocery store sign or a Blockbuster video sign, that isn't lying on the ground instead of proclaiming its wares prominently in the sky.

The devastation in Bogalusa is terrible, but it's nowhere near as bad as New Orleans. The national news networks never cease to anger me these days with their rose-tainted glasses - the situation there is generally nowhere near as happy as some people describe. New Orleans, such a great cultural mecca for the world, is for all intents and purposes mostly destroyed. The vast majority of the city is still underwater... no... you can't really call it "water." It's a toxic sludge of all kinds of deadly chemicals - wading in the polluted water can be fatal. And thousands of homes are underneath this poisonous goo. This is so bad that not only will it all have to be bulldozed, but even the earth and soil itself is contaminated and will have to be completely removed.

And all that talk about the pumps removing thousands and thousands of cubic feet per second? Thanks to the sheer amount of water and sludge in the city, combined with the leaking levees, the water has barely receded. In areas where water was, for example, 16 feet deep, now it might be 15 feet deep. There's a long way to go.

Even in Baton Rouge, where damage was limited but still severe, life can be difficult. Helicopters constantly fly by overhead, and police, fire, and ambulance sirens now occur regularly, every few minutes. The intense traffic makes it impossible to go anywhere, roads are closed, basic supplies are sometimes in short supply, and everybody needs help. Even in my own yard, many miles from the storm's wrath, I discovered in my cleanup efforts many, many tree limbs that had been blown so hard by the storm winds that they were impaled firmly in the ground, standing straight up like twisted new growths.

As bad as the geographic devastation is, it can't compare to the human suffering. Don't believe the news bulletins about improving conditions for the New Orleans refugees - a lot of it is complete and total bull... spin, no doubt, launched by some government agency, as it focuses on a very lucky few and ignores thousands of others. As a resident, as someone who visited shelters and aid distribution centers today, as someone who listened to people calling into local radio stations begging for help all day, I can tell you that the picture is not very rosy. So many people in so very great need are not receiving help... at all. Our government has abandoned and failed us in Louisiana, Republican and Democrat alike.

Perhaps you heard about the $2,000 debit cards our dear friends at FEMA were supposed to be giving to the displaced residents today? Sure sounded like a nice start, and we were all very happy to hear about it. But then the details started to trickle out - there are only 2,000 of these cards (because, of course, the other 998,000 affected don't really need much). They're only being given away in Houston (because, of course, the federal goverment believes that the greatest need for relief after a Louisiana-Mississippi-Alabama disaster is in Texas). And even after they had these 2,000 evacuees line up to receive the cards, they changed their minds and decided not to hand them out at all, because they had neglected to figure out how they were going to track it. Now, today, they're saying that they'll hand out those cards "in a few days", and that all of the other evacuees will receive checks in the mail.

Checks. In the mail. For homeless evacuees. Think about that for a second.

Most of the government's efforts complete ignore the outlying communities and the thousands of people who were outside New Orleans who were hit just as hard, like the people in Bogalusa without power or food or gas. I visited relief stations near my constantly-mentioned and obsessively-beloved hometown of Loranger, and found piles and piles of people waiting... and waiting... and waiting... for anything. Local officials seem to be bravely trying to do their best with the (scant) resources they have. On the way to the relief station (after I'd parked my car quite a distance away and started walking, because it became obvious I wasn't going to get to park much closer), I had to duck under a very low hanging electric wire. A bit closer to the relief station, I walked by the shattered remains of another electric pole, on the ground, surrounded by some kind of waste that I was unable to identify. The smell was, to say the least, interesting.

For so many of those in need, FEMA is doing absolutely nothing, and the Red Cross struggles as well. Both organizations constantly brag about the toll-free numbers Louisiana residents can call to get quick and free help... but what they fail to mention is that calls to toll-free numbers rarely work in Louisiana anymore (in fact, most calls in Southeast Louisiana to ANYWHERE rarely go through these days), and even on the very rare occasion that the call actually does go through, the hold time is measured in hours, not minutes (or so I hear, I have to admit I haven't tried calling myself). They say you can visit their websites... fat chance for homeless residents, residents without electricity, without phone connections. Then, even if you do talk to FEMA, they promise lots of help... in about ten to fourteen days. That's not too helpful to people who are living with the clothes on their back, without a home and with one last twenty stuffed in their pocket to live on. Meanwhile, shelters and relief lines are packed and overcrowded, and human beings, American citizens, are going without the barest necessities of dignity.

I usually consider myself a proud American, so I hate to say that not only has our leadership failed us, but our leadership has killed us. Literally, without drama or exaggeration, I say to you that people have died... innocent people have DIED (think about that, think about how you would feel if it was your grandmother or your brother or your best friend)... because of political posturing, power maneuvering, and excessive red tape. From FEMA's utter incompetence and the president's hopeless and meaningless optimism to the state's refusal to let in federal forces to help in the opening days of the tragedy (for which the blame falls squarely on our governor) to the city's inexplicable refusal to prepare for the hurricane when they knew it was on the way, despite the ready availability of buses normally used to bus in voters on Election Day (among other resources), our feckless leadership has failed us. If I thought I had a monkey's shot in hell, I'd run for office somewhere, just to try to bring some common sense in somewhere. Too bad I have no political connections.

Our Democratic mayors and governor have been all over the news broadcasts crying, moaning, and exposing their lack of leadership, vision, or motivation. They have no idea what to do next, and their bawling on the airwaves doesn't exactly inspire confidence or provide strong leadership. Meanwhile, our Republican president smiles that oblivious smile, assures us that everything will be okay, and turns, with Congress, to issues far weightier than thousands of human lives and livelihoods, like whether dear Johnny should be Chief Justice or just an Associate Justice.

I'm writing this... why am I writing this? I guess I'm writing this as therapy. I'm going to e-mail it out to people as... well... I guess as a public service on behalf of the Gulf Coast residents who are in need. This tragedy is real. It's not getting much better. Thousands of innocent people, poor and middle-class (and maybe even a few rich folks), black and white (despite what the Reverend Jesse Jackson and other demagogues would like you to think), old and young, sick and healthy, are being destroyed by this event even as I type this right now. I don't think most people who haven't seen it firsthand understand how bad it is. Tell your friends and family about this stuff, I beg you. Forward this e-mail if it helps.

If there's any way you can help, please do. I can't recommend donating to FEMA, and the Red Cross isn't perfect either... but at least it's a whole heck of a lot better than FEMA. If you're the praying type, pray for all of the people affected down here. If you're not the praying type... well, heck, pray for us anyway; it can't hurt anything, can it? The people of the Gulf Coast are in desperate need, and the people we hoped we could count on have been failing us most every step of the way.

Meanwhile, I'm counting my blessings (and there are so very many), helping if I can, and hoping the tarp I attached to a friend's roof holds if it rains again. Take care.

1 comment:

  1. Oh my dear friend....
    As I told you earlier this week I talked to my sheltered 5th graders about the devestation in Lousiana. They were only 5 years old when this tragedy happened so they honestly have no idea how to comprehend something like this. But the truth is, neither do I. I showed them videos from youtube and we discussed and wrote in our journals about what it would feel like to experience something like this. The crazy thing is, I didn't REALLY feel it until I read your post. I sat here while watching a pathetic football game, trying to complete lesson plans but decided to read your blog instead. And tears are streaming down my face (shocking, I know). Because I finally heard a TRUE voice of what the residents of Lousiana were dealing with. THANK YOU. thank you for being the kind of person that connect with people no matter where they are living.
    I might not know what it's like to live through something like Katrina, but heart hurts for the people that are still living with the horrific aftermath and will for the rest of their lives.
    Love ya--