Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Living Katrina

The second anniversary of Katrina is Wednesday, August 29, 2007. Most of our local television stations are doing various programs that day about remembering Katrina. But for those of us in New Orleans (and most of the gulf coast), it really isn't about remembering that awful time, because we are still living it.

Fortunately, we are getting nationwide attention again, finally. I couldn't tell you how many times I'm asked online if everything is back to normal here, since we don't seem to be discussed much any more. I know CBS evening news is sending Katie Couric here for a series of specials this week, and Oprah is also doing a new show about us on Wednesday. I'm hoping there is a lot more national attention, and would ask all of you to do your best to watch something about the sad state of affairs in which we still live.

Two years later there are still blocks and blocks and blocks that look like warzones. Many abandoned homes are now so overgrown they look like jungles. There are still piles of debris everywhere, even in the 'cleaned up' areas. FEMA trailers, despite all the health hazards discovered about them (unacceptable levels of formaldehyde, some of them just blow up, some are falling apart, etc.), they are still a ubiquitous part of our landscape. Sometimes in the midst of destruction, one can see one or two brave families trying to rebuild...and they face theft, arson, and worse since they live in practically deserted areas. Other abandoned homes have been taken over by drug lords and crime rings, turned into crack houses, or just used as shelter by the homeless.

Our crime rate is through the roof, with murders a daily occurrence. We don't have enough nurses, doctors, or psychiatrists and psychologists to deal with the depression with which most residents still struggle. Domestic abuse is up. Suicide is up. We are trying to regain our equilibrium, but it is very difficult. I recently read a short story (and don't remember the name or author, I'd be glad to give proper citation if anyone who reads this knows) in which he said, "New Orleans was struggling along, pretending it was still the Big Easy," or words to that effect. We want to be the Big Easy again. We want to be fun and funny, happy and healthy, goofy and good-crazy and not quite understood by the rest of the world the way we were...before. But it is very hard.

Prices have gone up on everything. Rents are so high, up hundreds of dollars from prices before the storm, because too many people still don't have viable housing in a neighborhood that isn't plagued by the criminals who've come to town to take advantage of our over-burdened police force. There really isn't any kind of help for renters, homeowners have some options, but renters are just out of luck. New Orleans has always been a lot like Sesame Street, with neighborhoods changing block to block, all of us jumbled all together and getting along just fine. My son's elementary school had students representing 43 different nationalities. His best friends in kindergarten were a boy from mainland China, a boy from Soviet Georgia (who spoke very little English) and a little black girl from a few blocks away. Now much of the diversity is being priced out of certain areas, and it is a loss to all of us. Food costs have risen, insurance is almost impossible to afford, and our utility companies are scrambling to make up lost revenue from a smaller population by raising prices.

I know a great many people gave to the Red Cross and other charitable organizations right after Katrina, but precious little of that money has trickled down to us. Our family got $1000 from the Red Cross, two years ago, and that's it. Meanwhile, our medical insurance has gone up, our co-pays have gone up, our deductible has gone up, gas has gone up, our rent has increased, and we just aren't making it any more. I'm completely disabled, but my husband makes $30 a month too much for us to qualify for SSI. So we eat a lot of beans and hot dogs, my husband and son do without, so they can afford my prescriptions and tests and doctor visits. We want to stay here. We love New Orleans. But we don't know where to turn, or what to do. We can't afford to move, my husband is 54, he can't just go looking for a new job at his age, even if we could afford the move to another city. And my son is a Mardi Gras baby, born in early February. In 2005, his 15th birthday fell on Mardi Gras, and we put him in a parade for his birthday present. New Orleans holds his heart, and ours, and all three break a little more every day.

In my next post, I'll talk about exactly what we went through in the days before and after Katrina, the kindness we encountered, the shock we felt when our government didn't seem to care about all the lives lost, changed forever, ruined. But tonight I'm not remembering Katrina, I'm still living it, every time I look outside, every time I watch the news, every time another bill arrives. Please, send us kind thoughts, and maybe even a little more money. Just be careful what charities you choose, because far too many unintended pockets are getting lined between you and us.

And that may be the saddest part of all. As Sir Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

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