Thursday, January 18, 2007

What Katrina Revealed Part 2

This is a second post on my trip last week to New Orleans for the Biennial Conference of PHEWA (Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association). The conference theme came from Isaiah 58:12.
"You shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to live in."

On the second day of the conference, Friday January 12, we took bus tours through the streets of neighborhoods around New Orleans to see first hand the effects of breached canals and levees.

My own tour guide was Aaron, a middle aged Black man and leader in the Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. As we set out on our trip, Aaron told us that over 200,000 homes had been significantly damaged by Katrina and the flood waters. Now think about this, Aaron commented, "It took Habitat for Humanity 30 years to build 200,000 homes. So imagine the scope of our challenge here in New Orleans."

The Presbytery of South Louisiana has a vision to rebuild 300 homes in 2007 through a revolving loan fund much like Habitat for Humanity.
The Katrina Cottage fund would build a home for $30,000 with volunteers doing all but electrical and plumbing work.

As we entered the Lower Ninth Ward, a scene of almost complete devastation loomed before us. FEMA trailers could be seen where families and individuals were still living. A FEMA trailer, Aaron told us, has about 200 square feet. The average room in a house is 240 square feet. Some individuals and families have been living in FEMA trailers over a year now. Aaron told us that the air quality in trailers has been said to be worse than the air quality experienced by professional embalmers who daily work with chemicals. People living in these FEMA trailers experience nausea, burning eyes, nose and throat discomfort and other symptoms.

We got out of our bus in the Lower Ninth Ward to walk through the streets, where many houses were empty or severely damaged beyond any standard of liveability. I turned down Roman Street in the Lower Ninth and came across an older black man named Harold who was working in his driveway.

After introducing myself, Harold told me his story. He had lived in 3 states with various family members since Katrina and had recently returned to work on the home he had build with his own hands back in 1950. Harold told me about surviving Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Here in his home the water from Katrina rose above the roof line, leaving mud all through the house. It was obvious that Harold loved his home and community.

As I looked around Harold's home, I saw that across the street the houses were gone, washed away by Katrina flood waters. Other homes were severely damaged. For several blocks around, no one else was working or living in their home.

Our tour guide, Aaron, told us that situations like Harold's pose major issues. How can a single home owner survive and truly live if no one else returns to their block? What kind of economic sense does it make for city service such as sanitation, light and electric to be provided a solitary home owner in a community?

We were then told that Mayor Nagin has taken a laissez-faire attitude toward rebuilding in neighborhoods, after his recommended policy to not rebuild drew deep and bitter opposition. "Build at your own risk," is the mayor's policy today.

As our bus tour members regathered, I saw tears in the eyes of several. This was my second trip to New Orleans and I had seen the Lower Ninth previously, but it was a moving moment.

One of our group asked if she could offer a prayer, in these words.
"O God, it is so desolate and abandoned here and recovery seems so slow. Like the Psalmist prayed, 'Do not forget us Lord. Our help is in the Thee, O Lord."

As of this writing, 12 Billion Dollars have been allocated for Gulf Coast Recovery. 97,000 applicants have applied for 7 billion dollars in home recovery. Only 153 awards have been made for homes, at up to $150,000 per home. The average award is $50,000.

Homes in the Lower Ninth are rarely valued above $50,000. It is unclear, when and how the streets of many neighborhoods will ever be restored. It raises deep questions about our nation and its government. Have the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast been forgotten? Why do we not see the urgency of this challenge to our nation's people? Has the war in Iraq numbed our consciousness as a nation?
What leadership do we need? When will people of America demand justice and compassion for the people of the Gulf?


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