As Irene was ramping up in the Atlantic last week, the media seemed not to be able to resist comparing the coming storm to Katrina. There are moments in time that are singular, incomparable. Nothing else is “like the Holocaust.” Let’s face it, even when the Saints win the Superbowl again, it won’t be like when the Saints won the Superbowl. Some moments stand alone.
As the East Coast assesses their damage and buries their dead, the Gulf Coast continues to rebuild and remember. Though Katrina is the name of a hurricane, it’s become the name for the event. The fact remains that the vast majority of deaths and much of the destruction connected to Katrina, though triggered by a natural disaster, were caused by a catastrophic failure of the levees in the New Orleans area and the subsequent governmental response (or lack thereof). The Independent Levee Investigation Team called Katrina, “The greatest man-made engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl.” The blame fell squarely, unquestionably and legally on the shoulders of the US Army Corps of Engineers.
Congress drafted legislation similar to the Countrywide Dam Safety Program, requiring, among other things, a new inspection process for the nation’s levees and providing oversight from a Safety Review Board. However, by the time the bill was passed, most of the guts had been cut out and oversight was not only handed to the Army Corps of Engineers, they were given even more responsibility. Is there a levee near you? The Army Corps of Engineers are in charge of it and all levees in the nation.
If you find that hard to believe, just remember who was put in charge of the BP shut-down, investigation and clean-up (BP). I’m not sure why our government sees fit to keep handing such important solutions to the very people who created the problems and even got people killed. We didn’t we just allow al-Quaeda to handle the aftermath of 9-11. Should we have put them in charge of rebuilding on Ground Zero?
So, where are we now? I can’t speak for the rest of the Gulf Coast, though my trip last year to the Beau Rivage in Biloxi was entirely pleasant, but New Orleans is still recovering, rebuilding, renewing and rebirthing. Initially, Katrina cut the city’s population in half. People who’d never left the city limits were forced to move all over the country. Those with children had the hardest time returning as there were no schools. Uprooting longstanding corruption in the school system seems to be one of the silver linings of the tragedy but, to this day, the New Orleans school system is dealing with residual effects such as a high incidence of “Serious Emotional Disturbances” among the children, especially those who were uprooted or lost loved ones to the storm.
It’s been 6 years and about 80% of those who want to return to the city have found their way home, but the population of children is significantly lower. Even in neighborhoods where population has actually increased since Katrina, the number of children has still plummeted. In a city where, historically, 95% of the people born here died here, it’s strange to think of all those New Orleanians in places like Utah. Katrina spread the city’s citizenry and their culture far and wide. As a result, people who’d never been here have now tasted red beans and rice, have tapped their toes to Kermit Ruffins, have been regaled with stories handed down for generations and cheered-on our Superbowl victory.
Since moving here, I’ve met many people who still want to come home. When I think of how much I longed for this place when I’d never lived here, when I think of how connected I felt to this city despite being little more than a lifelong tourist, when I think how much this place means to me after less than 2 years here, it makes me shudder to imagine being born here and being forced to leave it behind. Many of those who still haven’t made their way home have children in school and are loathe to uproot them again. Some have homes and steady jobs and just aren’t sure how to make the leap home. Some just plain-old don’t have the money for a move. I hope they all find a way home.
Interestingly, many of those from around the country who came to the city to help rebuild have decided to stay. There’s a new wave of residents who, like me, knew home is where the heart is and found their heart residing here. I imagine that there were also those who, having helped clear debris and put roofs on homes, felt the sense of pride and belonging that come with rebuilding a community. Imagine how much more you would feel a part of your city if you’d helped build the library or pave the roads. I long for the Works Progress Administration. Roosevelt’s idea of putting the Great Depression’s unemployed to work building public facilities, rebuilding infrastructure and feeding the poor ended when unemployment all but vanished during the economic boom of WWII. I would much rather have had New Orleanians whose very lives depend on the levees rebuild them than the proven-guilty Army Corps of Engineers.
I didn’t attend any of the Katrina remembrances this year. I shared the anniversary with someone who lived through the ordeal and has no desire to revisit it (although he was persuaded to stand in gushing rain last year to hear Anders Osborne play in Lafayette Square for free). Instead, I lived a normal day, the kind of day you don’t get to have during a disaster, the kind of day those affected on the East Coast would have loved to have had. I did laundry and ran errands and crossed things off a long to-do list.
Right now, there’s a marsh fire not far from here that will burn until it burns itself out. Not only is the fire water-locked and impossible to reach, it’s surrounded by agitated gators and snakes. The smell reminded me of the oil spill, of the smell of burning chemicals (although today it smells more like The Great Malibu Fire of 1993). As I was driving to the post office where a friendly employee was going to treat me like a cousin instead of a customer, I got behind a car whose license plate read, “Psalm37.”
Psalm 37, it turns out is where we find that the meek shall inherit the Earth, among many other things, but it opens with,”Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.” This city is totally entitled to rage. The Army Corps of Engineers stuffed the levees with newspaper and refuse leading to the death of over 1500 people and the devastation of a city. Families had to hold up signs for water (that didn’t come) while abandoned on rooftops after axing their way through attics. They stayed even after 200 policemen abandoned their posts and the only way to get food was to “loot” it. They endured a nightmare beyond your wildest imaginings in epic heat with the stench of death, fire and waste in their noses. No heads rolled, no one lost their job over the debacle, and, in fact, the government continues to pat its own back for a job “well done.” The rich got richer and there were even those who blamed the destruction on the debaucherous lifestyle of the city’s residents (and yet Vegas still stands, the Gamorrah to L.A.’s Sodom).
And still, someone asked the DMV to personalize their plate to remind us, “Do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.” I love my city.