Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What Katrina Revealed

While many football fans enjoyed the remarkable victory of the New Orleans Saints football team over the Philadelphia Eagles this past Saturday, I saw a different vision of the city while attending a four day "Social Justice Biennial Conference" put on by the Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association (PHEWA) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) I have to admit the football scene in New Orleans on Saturday was electric. And on my return to the Louis Armstrong Airport, I even met the 11 year old boy from Tennessee who won the NFL Punt, Pass and Kick Contest. Estimates are that the Super Bowl- scene of so much heartbreaking human tragedy during Hurricane Katrina- was repaired for a cost of some $180,000,000. The football stadium is repaired, but it will take decades for New Orleans to recover.

Much more remains to be repaired in New Orleans. Our conference theme was drawn from the prophet Isaiah: "You shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to live in." (Isaiah 58:12)

Some 500 Presbyterians from across the United States gathered in New Orleans to witness and engage in "Action/Reflection" on the nature of mission in a great devastated city. Our keynote plenary address was presented by Bill Quigley, a law professor and Director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University New Orleans. Bill Quigley has been engaged in a variety of issues, including Katrina Social Justice issues, voting rights, civil liberties, public housing, and educational reform among other concerns. He is the author of
"Ending Poverty As We Know It: Guaranteeing a Right to a Job at a Living Wage" (Temple University Press, 2003)

Here are some of the stark facts that citizens and leaders of New Orleans must contend with in "Repairing the Breach".

*280,000 people were displaced by Katrina out of a pre-Katrina population of nearly

*The African-American population dropped 73% from 325,000 to 89,000.

*The White population declined from 136,000 to 81,000 for a loss of 41%.

*Children dropped from 145,000 to 40,000.

*Over 80% of New Orleans was covered by the flood waters.

*100,000 people were left behind in the course of the city's flooding, most of them elderly, children, disabled, and those without transportation.

*25% of the displaced were disabled.

* 1,500 died....mostly elderly.

*75% of Physicians have left, due to loss of patients and closure of hospitals and clinics.

*84,000 rental units were destroyed.

*90,000 square miles were damaged by Katrina.

*250,000 displaced citizens are now living in Texas

*100,000 displaced citizens are living in Georgia.

The impact of the storm was unequal. It was born overwhelmingly by the black, elderly, children and renters.

And yet the Spirit of Christ and the spirit of hope and compassion is present in New Orleans. Bill Quigley summarized his faith in this way:

"Our Hearts must be open totally
to injustice and pain
and totally open
to hope and love."

Quigley observed that 1,700 law students came in the last year to offer assistance.

During our second day in New Orleans we were taken into the devastated neighborhoods of the city on buses with the opportunity to walk the streets and see evidence of the destruction, but also to witness signs of hope and love.

We stopped along the way at Musicians Village, a Habitat for Humanity Project to house the struggling musicans of New Orleans. Harry Connick, Jr. and Wynton Marsalis- both esteemed musicians from New Orleans- had organized this effort. It's very difficult for many musicians to rebuild and afford housing, because the music life isn't always highly remunerated.

Walking down the street at Musicians Village, I saw very modest Habitat homes raised up some 6-8 feet above the ground. All were painted with bold colors: yellow, purple, robins egg blue and green. At one house I saw three young college students, all women, taking a break on the front steps.

"What brings you here?" I asked.

"We're from the University of Minnesota-Duluth" they told me. "There are 38 of us here for a week, during semester break. We raised money for the trip, recruited faculty advisors to come with us, and came down to help out."

"Wow" I said. And then they told me, I had just missed 238 members of the University of Maryland marching band who had also come for the week!

All that was inspiring. I remember a couple of other comments by Bill Quigley at his opening plenary address to members of PHEWA:

"Mourn for the Dead
and Fight like Hell for the Living!"

I heard Quigley share another prophetic comment: "New Orleans is a warning for other communities in America. People are left behind in every one of our cities as they struggle with poverty, loss of jobs, lack of health care, poor schools, disabilities, and the sense that cities and people can be disposable."

And I thought, yes, our heart and minds must be totally open to injustice and pain; but also open to hope and love.

I'll be posting a few more blogs from my experience in New Orleans.


Post a Comment

<< Home