Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"Nothing Means Green"

If you read last week's post and worried about the picture of the car in the ditch, I figured out how to post the photo. Well, actually, I didn't figure anything out. But it worked this time. So go back to last week to see the picture of the car in the ditch.

Now, for today's business: our tour of New Orleans- (however, I don't have any pictures today; not because I'm incompetent but because it rained for most of the trip.)

We found a guided tour of New Orleans through the St Charles Ave Presbyterian Church. They have a program called RHINO (Rebuilding Hope in New Orleans). I especially wanted our young adults to see the city first hand and with someone who could tell them what they were seeing.

It wasn’t hard to get the impression the St Charles Ave Presbyterian Church is a large and wealthy congregation. It’s in the center of New Orleans and stands on just about the only part of town that didn’t get flooded. However, they suffered wind damage to their roof and are in reconstruction mode themselves. The tour was conducted in our rented van and was led by a church member. There’s no telling how many of these tours Laurie Becker has done but she was just bursting with information.

Laurie used to work for the Dallas Times Herald and her daughter goes to Trinity College in San Antonio so she has lots of ties to Texas. Her husband is an attorney so we pretty much knew she lived in the nice part of town when she referred to her own neighborhood. She had the most relaxing way of keeping a running commentary from the front seat of the van all the way to the back while giving Damon driving instructions at the same time. I don’t know how she did it. My brain would have exploded.

The tour started out in the wealthiest part of the city, the Garden District, also called “the sliver on the river” now because there was a small sliver of land above the water line. She talked a little of how the street cars will not reopen until 2008 because the falling trees took down the power lines. St Charles Avenue is high ground and where private boats brought people who had been rescued from their rooftops.

When Damon stopped at a traffic light showing neither red nor green, waiting for something to happen, Laurie said in a very off-handed way for him to continue through the intersection; that “nothing means green.” This was just one of many examples of how all the rules have changed in this city. This became one of the most quoted memories of our trip. Nothing means green.

A few minutes after seeing this area she told us that from that point on in our tour of New Orleans we should think of ourselves as being in a boat because for the rest of the tour all the areas of the town we would see from then on were only reachable by boat after the water rose.

The tour went from neighborhood to neighborhood, getting poorer as we went. The first area we saw was the University area, an upper class neighborhood with two story homes. Laurie said these people were able to live on their second floor but the bottom floors were gutted. That meant cooking out of a microwave and washing dishes in the tub.

We were starting to see flood lines on the houses. There are no FEMA trailers here because one of the rules is that you have to put it entirely on your property and there’s no room in the small front and back yards here. There’s also a FEMA rule that you can’t put a trailer in a flood zone. (Well, duh.) That explains the lack of trailers in New Orleans as well as the 15,000 unused trailers parked on an airport runway in Hope, Arkansas. Our recent college graduate, Kyle Wilson, said he has flown over them many times during his training to become a pilot.

She explained the FEMA “X”s . A few days after the mayor declared a mandatory evacuation of the city the search and rescue teams entered every single house in New Orleans. Consequently, every house has one of the X’s spray painted on it, including her own. The date is when the team entered the house. The next section is the team who entered. “CA” meant the team from California, etc. The third section told of any hazards found like rats or snakes. And the fourth section gave a number of dead bodies found inside. There was another marker also for any pets found. “FW” meant they found a pet and “Fed and Watered” it. Sometimes they would write “Needs pickup” to come get the dog or cat.

Laurie called New Orleans a city of canals, “just like Venice but without the gondolas.” The canals are normally used for drainage. The town sits so low that when it rains they have to pump water out to avoid flooding. But during Katrina these canals brought water into the city instead of away.

The politics and history swirling around New Orleans make for its own nastiness. There was a terrible flood in 1927, that time from bad rains. The Caernarvon levee was intentionally blown up, some say to save the wealthier parts of the city. In 1965 Hurricane Betsy hit and the levees were overtopped by storm surge that was two feet higher than the levees. Over 80 people were killed in that storm . And even during Katrina, Jefferson parish flooded because the pumps were intentionally shut off. Laurie told us this was a decision by the parish president made in order to allow those workers to evacuate. Many times human error has caused as much misery as the weather. Needless to say, New Orleans has a hard time trusting their politicians.

New Orleans has many multi-generational families of all economic classes. They all ask the same questions. If I re-build, how high do I build? If they declare this a flood zone will I have to re-build on stilts? What good is insurance if you can’t get anything from them? As we drove out of Jefferson parish and into Orleans parish we saw a sign that said “Armed Special Services on Duty 24 hours a day”

Fifty Eight. That’s the number of breeches in the levees. 58 places where the water came through the levees. She took us to see two or three of these. We couldn’t actually see the levees other than a high mound of dirt or concrete. Instead ,we saw the damage the breech made. At the 17th St. canal breech there was a row of houses still standing except for the gap directly in front of the breech where the water blew a house off its foundation and left only the concrete.

Laurie told a little of the human cost, the few stories here and there that accumulated to make the big picture. Her family veterinarian moved away yesterday. Her pediatrician committed suicide a few weeks after the storm. Their church has lost two of their three ministers.

In Lakeview, a solid middle class neighborhood, we saw houses with holes in the roofs where people had become trapped in the house and escaped through the roof.

Among the forgotten victims of the flood are the trees and vegetation. The flood waters, besides containing water from the sewage system and industrial waste also brought salt water from the ocean and left it there for days. New Orleans has lost ten percent of their trees from damage by the salt water bath. At one point Laurie and her daughter were trying to figure out what color to use to describe the trees and grass. It wasn’t green and it wasn’t yellow or brown. They decided to call the color “dead.”

We went by the marina where it looked like, in her words, “ a small boy had thrown his play boats down in anger”. There was still a jumble of boats piled up on top of each other.

Laurie told us “I’m learning about what ‘home’ means to people.” She has talked to people who lived in Houston for a while with better housing, better jobs and better schools who have come back simply because “it’s home.” For a while she read up on social engineering and how the academics would bring the city back. Years ago when the wealthy blacks couldn’t live inside the city they built homes for themselves on the outskirts of town in a separate neighborhood. Some of the homes were large and beautiful; they had their own country clubs and social life. Laurie thought the city could now shrink to a smaller city and those blacks could move closer in and live in a mixed neighborhood. But they don’t want to. It’s not home. So, she has decided social engineering doesn’t work and the city must come back naturally. But nobody knows what that will look like. “I’m not real big on odds anymore.”

By now in our tour we were in the Lakeview neighborhood. Some of the houses were in the process of rebuilding. Laurie said she expected that as property values fell, people would find bargains and everyone would be able to move up a notch. The pioneers in this neighborhood had signs in their yards proudly proclaiming that they believed in their city and were staying.

In the Gentilly neighborhood the houses got poorer. And not all the people who lived here were renters. Some of the homes had been paid off generations ago and passed down in the family from parents or grandparents. The downside of this is that since they owned the homes outright there was no mortgage company to require them to carry insurance. Without insurance, they lost everything.

Periodically Laurie would say about a neighborhood that she felt good about them, felt that they would come back. But then she might get to another neighborhood and say that she was worried about it; that she didn’t know if they would make it. You could tell she loves her city.

We continued on to the ninth ward. I found out that New Orleans is divided into wards and every neighborhood has a number but some of them go by names also, like the Garden District or the Lakeview neighborhood. The Ninth Ward is just called by its number.

We saw Fats Domino’s house. And Musicians Village where Winton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr are joining with Habitat for Humanity to build new houses there. The houses are small and different vibrant colors. It’s about the only new construction we saw.

Laurie gave us some statistics. The loss of life followed the same demographic percentages as the city. Sixty-two percent of the city was black and roughly 62% of lives lost were black. But among property losses the blacks suffered more than whites. Some of the empty foundations we saw were not because houses were washed away but because they were in such bad shape they were bulldozed. She fears the loss of the character of the town as well as the loss of small businesses. Some have closed. The city is still 80% devastated. They need paying customers.

At the end of two hours driving around like this she reminded us that we were still in a boat. Everything we had seen had been in water so deep that it was only accessible by boat. But now we were about three miles from the Super Dome. She wanted us to “get out of the boat” and imagine the people who heard that they could go to the Convention Center or the Super Dome for shelter. We were to imagine the walk. It was days after the storm and we were hungry and thirsty. We were walking in water up to our chests. It was 109 degrees. The water was a cocktail of sewage, motor oil and industrial waste. There were snakes and rats swimming in the water with us. And we were carrying our baby in a plastic basket. What did we expect to find when we got to the convention center? I immediately thought of getting a shower. Others thought of changing the baby’s diaper or of eating. And, of course, we all knew what awaited them at the Convention Center.

It was a vivid experience. I have never seen so much damage in my life. I doubt there is anything in New Orleans that’s not affected by the storm. If there was, we didn’t see it.

There are more ways to help with the recovery from this storm than you could imagine. Take a group or go alone. Some places restrict teams to those over 18 but some accept 16 years or older. Here’s a few websites to look at:

St Charles Ave Presbyterian and RHINO: http://www.scapc.org/
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance: www.pcusa.org/katrina/
News of all groups helping in Pearlington, Mississippi: http://pearlington.blogspot.com/

Check them all out. Sign up and go.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For more PCUSA news about the recovery process you may want to visit the Presbytery's recovery site at

PSLRecovery.org

On this site you can also learn about the presbytery's campaign "I'll be home for Christmas 2007" to raise funds to build 300 new homes in the Greater New Orleans area to help people return to their home by Christmas.

Many PCUSA churches in the Greater New Orleans area are hosting volunteers including youth; there is one PDA Volunteer Village in the Greater NO Area with another to open soon.

Lydia

The need continues for volunteers to come gut homes and soon to beging the process of rebuilding.