New Orleans Now

A year after the fact, the catastrophic the events of Hurricane Katrina’s continue to plague on the 9th ward.

Witten and Photographed by for the Santa Barbara Independent: Alex Molloy

“America: Never Take It For Granted” reads a star spangled road sign as we enter the state of Texas, each of us mimic it in the best Texan accent we can muster as we belt down the I-10 on our way to New Orleans. Our comedy today in El Paso but by nightfall, our final destination would make it all too clear how ironic the sign actually was.

The sun was sinking behind the bayou when we finally reached the Common Ground home base at Saint Mary’s Catholic Grammar School. Three stories tall this brick building literally stood for survival. Not only had it survived the hurricane relatively unscathed, but it also protected the neighbors who climbed its stairs in fear and were airlifted up through its roof. There we stood illuminated by a generator-run fluorescent light at the steps of the one of the first nonprofit relief organizations to arrive after Katrina, and who, with a dedication to at least five years, will also undoubtedly be one of the last. A lanky guitarist graced the front steps with a couple of acoustic chords as people wander about like lost souls before the humming generator is turned off. How appropriate for a city of lost souls, deserted blank faced houses and painful memories.

We awoke to the crisp pallor of morning by all-too-enthusiastic serenades from all-too-perky volunteers, only to be faced, bleary eyed, with the very real destruction that almost swallowed Saint Mary’s at all sides. There we sat, taking morning coffee with a government dubbed “disaster zone.” Fortunately there was not enough time to dwell on this fact, for no sooner had we wolfed down the large breakfast than we were carted off in all different directions armed with Tyvex suits and half-face respirators. The optimistically pink cartridges of the respirators mirrored that of our faces, as we swarmed the city like ants to a dead carcass.

Once arriving at the lower 9th ward, I realize that the upper 9th ward that housed Saint Mary’s was pristine by comparison. Crippled houses and sad slanting windowsills made way for true disparity. Made way for cars Triton stacked one on top of the other, telephone poles leaning drunkenly at a mere third of their former glory and houses, lacking all aspects of their definition, trying to escape the rusted springs of their foundation.

Standing in front of a beautiful 1920s house laced with wrought iron, the owner, Mildred, instructed us to place the salvageable items alongside the porch. Hesitantly we gathered our crowbars, hammers and composure and began to haul out all the earthy possessions that Mildred and her three year old granddaughter had once treasured. Books, sofas, a stuffed train, television, toys, clothes, board games, curtains and photographs, boxes of photographs, wilted and sepia, dripping with natural disaster.

And there she stood, with softened eyes, watching. Watching her house become less a hearth and more an unidentifiable mass of rubble; molded wooden beams garlanded with termite trails and stinking of sulfur. Her short curly grey hair was the only physical indication of years and hardship which went unseen across the smooth cheeks of her face. Limber as ever, she hopped from one pile to another, sorting possessions from trash and called me “Honey” as she spoke of the floodwater creeping up the belly of her daughter. Employed by the government Mildred’s daughter would have lost her job if she left, even when the levees broke and the 9th ward was waist deep in water. So there she waded in the sweltering heat for three days, portly with six months of pregnancy.

After Mildred had sorted the very few possessions she had left, she dusted her hands and asked us what she could make us for lunch. We were well provided for by Common Ground, but there she stood with only some garden tools and a couple of candlestick holders to her name, asking what she could do for us.

Three days we spent pulling apart the house, limb from limb, sheetrock from stud. We met roaches and termites and an acrobatic rat that scurried from the light which was exposed with each strike of decomposition. Down to the skeleton and still mold remediation, rebuilding and refurnishing had to be done before it is once again habitable.

In the time it takes to create a human life, no action had been conceived or birthed from the wreckage of the lower 9th ward. And today, three months later and a year from August 29th 2005, New Orleans is still marinating in pain, loss and destruction.

For Mildred and many other home owners like her, their homes are not going to be replaced by a mere seven thousand dollars in insurance side-stepping nor the ineffectual FEMA trailers, whose anacronym is now satirically dubbed “Fix Everything My Ass.” Their friends, family and the hundreds of thousands evacuees are not going to be comforted by the Government’s assurance to notify the 44,000 owners as to when their homes will be demolished in order to accommodate rich developers in what some say will be the “largest land grab of United States history.” These people who return in hopes of some semblance of their former lives are not going to be relieved by the six of nine New Orleans hospitals that still stand with closed doors, and less than half public schools that will open them this fall. And I can assure you that none of the people of the 9th ward are satisfied with the late response for this imminent crisis and the admittance by experts to the “catastrophic structural failure” of the levees, regardless of whose fault it was.

New Orleans still stands in ruins, the levees still not capable of protecting its people. Some say a “tourist trap was saved over human life” but now importance lies not in conspiracy theory but universal support. Is this how the 1,600 people who died are going to be remembered? Slightly less people but surely not insignificant to that of 911. What about the 49 bodies that are still left to be identified and the countless that still have not be rescued from the wreckage? Watery graves, nameless gravestones it still remains.

What has become of a developed nation with its people less enfranchised than that of a third world? It is sad when the “Oprah Factor” does more for its people than the government itself. “America: Never Take It For Granted.”

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