Eight months after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, New Orleans remains a devastated city. Having just returned from a short visit, I was shocked by what I saw.
With the city leadership’s determination to put on its annual Mardi Gras festival, New Orleans has attempted to put a brave face on its situation.
"We’re coming back," is what they say. And I suppose that as a result of this optimism/hype, coupled with the media’s Katrina fatigue, most of us have been lulled into believing that New Orleans was indeed making real progress.
The central business section of the city is up and running. Most hotels are open, as is the city’s famed French Quarter (which was spared flooding). It is, therefore, possible to visit New Orleans, conduct business, dine and be entertained, and remain largely untouched by, and unaware of, much of the city’s tragedy. It should be noted that this was also true before Katrina, as tourists came and went, never seeing the crushing poverty that plagued large swatches of New Orleans.
This is not to say that there isn’t evidence of Katrina in the center city. There are boarded over windows and newly patched roofs. Some buildings remain closed. A department store still substitutes as a temporary hospital. And passing by the now empty Superdome, you can’t help but flash back to the horrific scenes of thousands of evacuees who sought refuge there.
The real story of today’s New Orleans, however, is a mere five to 10 minutes away. Traveling into the city’s vacant neighborhoods you see blocks of empty houses, each bearing ominous spray-painted markings noting the day they were checked, how many dead were found, the degree of toxic waste contamination, etc.
In some neighborhoods, homes have been gutted and emptied. But the rubble and garbage remain piled in front, uncollected. Cars sit rusting in driveways. Downed trees still lie on some homes, roofs caved in and everywhere the eerie waterline marks. In some areas, it is a black line crossing from house to house three feet above the ground. In other areas the floodwaters left stain marks at five feet. In some, there is no mark at all, because these neighborhoods were totally submerged.
Much of the city looks like a ghost town, but in ruins. In some sections of New Orleans only five percent of the population has returned. Most of those who remain in the city live in areas that did not flood. In all, however, two-thirds of the New Orleans population remains outside, in exile, unable to return.
The problem is larger than destroyed houses, toxic water, no power or drinkable tap water. In many areas, businesses have not been able to reopen and so there is no food, medicine, gasoline or services available. The public school system is not functioning and much of the postal system is not operational either.
New Orleans’ courthouse is closed. Not only is the building not functioning, neither is the city’s judicial system. I was told that hundreds who were being held for trial before Katrina hit were evacuated when the detention facility flooded. They were moved to prisons, where they still sit, with no trial, no prospect of a trial, and no legal counsel.
In the midst of this chaos, dislocation and devastation, New Orleans is holding municipal elections. It seems bizarre to drive down empty streets in vacant neighborhoods, dotted with election placards. Who are the signs for? Who will see them?
With two-thirds of the population scattered in other cities and states, an election may seem problematic, but the city’s leaders decided that the vote should go forward and the sitting mayor agreed. New Orleans is in a crisis and its leadership needs the legitimacy of citizen support. But this election cannot solve New Orleans’ problems. Massive resources are needed from the outside.
What makes all this so maddening is the unfulfilled commitments made by President Bush seven months ago. I can’t forget his powerful address to the nation delivered against the backdrop of New Orleans’ St. Louis Cathedral. In that speech, the President acknowledged that the government had been slow to start in response to Katrina. He promised a massive rebuilding effort to bring New Orleans back to life. Recognizing that African Americans were disproportionately among the city’s poor because of a "history of racial discrimination," the President laid out an aggressive program that would not only reconstruct, but give priority attention to the city’s poor.
Eight months later, the promises seem to have been forgotten, like the garbage that sits uncollected in front of the Ninth Ward’s destroyed homes. And Katrina remains a stain on our nation, not only because it exposes for all the depth of our racial and class divide, but the hollowness of our promises to right these wrongs.