Sunday, October 28, 2007

Reflections on Hurricane Season 2005, Part Four

Here is my Fourth article generated by my recent tour of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Louisiana to inspect 2005 hurricane damage and what has been done in the aftermath. This series was published at in the Spring, but I want to continue to bring Mosquito Blog readers up to date, because government on all levels is still agressively working against the basic interests of many of the disenfranchised in New Orleans, particularly Blacks. There is tremendous injustice going on and charges of racism are rife, but skewed ideology and private business sector avariciousness are equal suspects here.

It will be interesting to compare the pathetic government efforts at recovery in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans to how government will now react in southern California to the wild fires devastation. Stay tuned for that.

In this report I have now waded into the heart of hurricane devastation in New Orleans, the Lower Ninth Ward, where I found government relief efforts practically invisible, and only some hearty volunteers and social activists present there to help the victims of Katrina survive day to day.


May 8, 2007

Welcome to the Lower Ninth Ward, Where Tragedy and Hope Meet

By Mac McKinney

Along the Gulf Coast, Post Katrina, Part 4: The Lower Ninth Ward

Devastated house in the Lower Ninth Ward

After wandering through Orleans Avenue (which was recounted in Part 3) on this increasingly warm and sunny Friday the 13th, I headed on to downtown New Orleans, somewhat disoriented by the unfamiliarity of the streets after some 28 years, but I finally found myself on the end of St. Charles Avenue. I stopped at the nearby St. Charles Bar and Pool Room and ordered a Hurricane, which I sat sipping through a straw like a slow milkshake while I watched an old Gunsmoke episode on the nearest screen. I figured I could use a good shot of rum to get me through the rest of what would surely be a taxing afternoon.

I started walking up busy St. Charles, taking photos, diverting momentarily over to Camp Street, where, surprisingly, I came across the Zen Center of New Orleans, unaware that the city even had a Zen temple. It would take the compassion of Buddha, I thought, to heal all of New Orleans. I walked through Lafayette Square, photographing the statue of school children with John McDonogh, the philanthropist, also unaware that the plight of the public school system would be brutally brought home to me soon in the Lower Ninth Ward.

I eventually reached Canal Street, where I bought some trinkets and took more photographs. You could never guess, looking at downtown New Orleans, that a major hurricane had devastated the city some 20 months ago. Repairs had been relatively quickly and efficiently made, even though parts of downtown had been flooded up to four feet high, as a hotel clerk explained to me. She also told me the easiest way to get to the lower Ninth: drive east on Poydras, right on Claiborne, and just keep going until you cross over a big drawbridge.

So that's what I did. However, once upon S. Claiborne and merged onto N. Claiborne, I was so struck by significant damage right on this major boulevard that I parked and took more photographs. Why, I thought, hadn't such an amazing eyesore as the one shown below been leveled after so long by the city? But again, this was in a predominantly Black district. Is that answer enough?

An eyesore along N. Claiborne Avenue

After about a ten minute drive I was rolling over the large and rusty looking draw bridge spanning the Industrial Canal, the canal whose levee system had been breached in three places, two of these breaches directly flooding the Lower Ninth, a levee system that investigators have emphasized was one in name only.

As I got off the bridge, I pulled into a close by gas station, jumped out and asked a fellow gassing up to his truck if I was actually in the Lower Ninth right now, which he confirmed. "Where can I find the major damage?" I asked, explaining that I was here to take photos.

"Just turn right at the light two blocks up or take the next right here and start looking," he replied, "The damage is everywhere."

So I turned right, or north, and began what became a two hour plus sojourn up and down the still devastated streets of the Lower Ninth Ward, where some 25,000 people once lived, worked, played and worshipped. On the northside at least, very few people have moved back in. You see a few operable-looking cars parked in front of a few houses, as opposed to the hundreds of abandoned cars all over the place. On the southside, less badly hit, several thousand people have moved back in I am told, and I did see more people out and about, although, due to time constraints, I focused primarily on the northside, where I barely saw a person all afternoon, except for a few city workers, several homeowners, and a handful of contractors, that is until I went by the Common Ground Community Center later on.

You can visit my photo album on the Lower Ninth Ward, by the way, at any time by just clicking here. You can view the photos singly or as a slide show. You don't have to sign in either. There are 176 photos, so take your time.

Almost every house on the northside looks abandoned and damaged, with windows half or all the way out and the front door usually open or loose on its hinges. Some of the front doors or facades had X's on them, ominous reminders of the horrific days of the flooding, when rescuers were putting X's on a house to indicate that it had been checked for people or pets. But many if not most houses had no X. Does that indicate they were never checked?

Gone, obviously, are all the bodies. Gone too are the egregious piles of putrid garbage that had accumulated throughout the Lower Ninth as the floodwaters abated. Determined crews of volunteers dressed in Tyvek suits and respirators came in, from both the Lower Ninth and beyond, to eliminate them. None of this was organized by the city, mind you, despite Mayor Nagin's wonderful-sounding rhetoric, the city acting more like an absentee landlord in a detective series than any kind of leader in the rebuilding efforts here, which just reinforces the viewpoint some residents hold that the city only wants to drive off the black community, so that realtors and carpetbaggers can seize all their property. Or is it just the inertia of bureaucracy and regulations that paralyzes government?

Schools and Churches

In March of 2006 students and organizers also "raided" (since it was off-limits) the Martin Luther King Elementary School on the southside. To quote from an article by Kerul of Common Ground Collective:

New Orleans --In an historic act of solidarity, around 85 students and organizers from across the country risked arrest today by entering Martin Luther King Elementary School in the devastated Lower 9th Ward. Outside the school, a crowd of around 300 gathered wearing Tyvek suits and respirators, holding hand painted signs and chanting to oncoming traffic. In an ongoing effort to rebuild New Orleans, residents of the Lower Ninth Ward requested that these supporters clean the school out....

After raking the leaves and debris littering the entrance to the school, the crowd of volunteers pounded their tools on the pavement, as police observed from across the street. The students made their way into the building, and began sweeping and scooping piles of mud and debris from the lobby, carefully avoiding personal effects and sensitive items, such as plaques and framed pictures that had fallen from the walls in the storm. Among odd findings, an 8 inch dead fish was found in the stairwell leading up to classrooms.

Of the 117 public schools operational before Hurricane Katrina hit, only 20 are open. No plans exist to open schools in the Ninth Ward, giving residents no opportunity to rebuild their community. (March 16, 2006, source)

Unfortunately, over a year later, the school has not reopened, prompting protests. Instead the school has been "moved" uptown, in name only and as a charter school, to the former site of Edgar P. Harney Elementary School in Central City, which does absolutely nothing to help the repopulation and rebuilding of the Lower Ninth. The Louis Armstrong Elementary School, also on the southside, has likewise not reopened. Charter schools, I might add, are looked upon as the Messiah for a new educational paradigm, but the jury has not even formed on this count.

Joseph Hardin Elementary. Louis Armstrong has yet to reopen on the southside

Things are even worse on the northside, where the Joseph A. Hardin Elementary School has never even been gutted. I can attest to that after stumbling across the school as I drove down St Maurice Avenue. It seemed so disheveled, with weeds and twisted chain-link fencing marring the entrance, that I grew curious and started exploring the premises, soon realizing that no one, apparently, has bothered to do much of anything to this neighborhood tragedy. An overwhelming pathos struck me as I gingerly stepped through semi-dark rooms taking pictures. You'll see what I mean when you look at my photo album. Room after room was trashed, with the ceiling panels falling down, insulation hanging, the overhead trim rusting, trash and desks and books strewn all about, yet, thankfully, there was not a lot of structural damage visible. Can this school be salvaged? I would say yes, but there has to be the will to do so. And unless the schools are all cleaned up and rebuilt, how can the Lower Ninth Ward be revived?

The lobby of Hardin Elementary in April, 2007

There is a similar problem with the churches on the northside. The two I saw and photographed, the Holy Family Spiritualist Church and The Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church, have both been gutted, thank God, but they still await reconstruction, and for the Ward to be revived, the houses of worship must also be revived.

I continued to drive about, stopping to take photos every few blocks or so. There were crazy juxtapositions such as a boat atop a rusted out truck, fairly intact houses right next to completely shattered ones, a tour bus sitting in a weed-grown lot right next to a house, parked as if it was the family car. After rambling though most of the northside, I finally doubled back toward the direction I had started from, driving south on tree-lined Tennessee Avenue, but then turned right a block, then left again onto Deslonde Street, where I could immediately see some activity in the distance ahead.

Common Ground Collective

The bright color blue caught my eyes as I approached, this anomaly gradually transforming into a house covered with a blue tarp that extended out over the large driveway and, past that, another, corner house whose siding had been painted the same blue tint. This was the ward headquarters, so to speak, of Common Ground Collective, a truly amazing volunteer organization that I can't do justice to in this piece alone, only delineating it here.

Common Ground Community/Distribution Center in the Lower Ninth Ward

Common Ground was founded in the tumultuous days after Katrina struck by social activists Brandon Darby, Scott Crow, King Wilkerson and Malik Rahim with a treasury of $50 and the awareness that, to quote from a March 2, 2006 Alternet article by Billie Mizell, "they could do a better job at helping people than the government of the most powerful nation in the world. Their small monetary investment has grown; the collective now has hundreds of members who have fed, housed and provided medical care for nearly 20,000 people (many more than that in the year since this was written-Mac).

"How did they do it? They went to the houses that were standing and asked the people who were still around, "What can we do to support you?" What they kept hearing: You can't rebuild a community that's buried under tons of garbage. So they started by picking up trash and decomposing animals, and then moved on to putting tarps over homes.

"They began to envision a relief organization radically different from those that had come to Louisiana in Katrina's aftermath. They wanted to bring together people of every background, race and economic level -- doctors working alongside garbage men working alongside cooks working alongside lawyers working alongside kids, all for one common goal. Space in a local mosque was secured for their headquarters, and soon, monetary assistance started pouring in and volunteers started lining up. A medical clinic was opened, and Red Cross immediately began pointing people in need to Common Ground. (Yes, the Red Cross turned the sick away in droves, instead sending them to a tent run by kids and volunteer nurses.) A legal aid clinic was established to offer immediate assistance to those trying to rebuild their lives and to put pressure on the authorities to focus on relief and rebuilding." (source)

Common Ground eventually divided into two separate organizations: Common Ground Relief and Common Ground Health Clinic. Quoting from Wikipedia:

"Common Ground Health Clinic had its beginnings when four young street medics, who had heard Malik Rahim's plea for support, showed up in Algiers a few days after the hurricane. They began riding around on bicycles asking residents if they needed medical attention. Locals were apparently surprised to be approached in this way, since no representatives of government agencies or of the Red Cross had appeared up to that point. The medics offered first aid, took blood pressure, tested for diabetes, and asked about symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other disease.

"After forming as a more cohesive organization, Common Ground began recruiting volunteers to help rebuild homes and provide other free services in the Lower Ninth Ward.... Thousands of people have volunteered for various lengths of time, creating an unusual social situation in the predominantly black neighborhoods, since most of the volunteers have been young white people from elsewhere. An ABC News Nightline report described the volunteers as "mostly young people filled with energy and idealism, and untainted by cynicism and despair, and mostly white, [who] have come from across America and from countries as far away as Indonesia."

"In addition to providing free food, water, cleaning supplies, protective gear, diapers, and health and hygiene goods, Common Ground has offered legal assistance, day care, tutoring, soil and water testing, and Internet access. Although much of their housing remediation work has been in the Lower Ninth Ward, they have a larger station across the Industrial Canal in the Upper 9th Ward of New Orleans." (source)

So I stopped here and started asking a few questions. Since it was already late afternoon now, I didn't ask many, and later decided I would come back Sunday to ask some more. I then walked to the corner and started talking to a handful of people sporting "I Love New York" tee-shirts. They were all church volunteers from New Jersey, and apparently the corner of Deslonde and N. Derbigny in front of Common Ground was a sort of volunteers' rendezvous point. Countless volunteers from around the globe must have met on this same corner since Katrina hit.

When I cam back Sunday I interviewed Jesse and Dan, two hard-core volunteers who had given up their normal lives and homes to serve the people of the Lower Ninth Ward. Jesse explained how they realized, as the Katrina tragedy unfolded, "that there was something from our government that should have been done, but wasn't, so we stepped in and will help as long as needed."

Both felt that the city of New Orleans was not only not helping, but clearly trying to drive people out of the Lower Ninth while maintaining a PR fa├žade. Consequently a lot of Common Ground's efforts are in the legal arena, educating residents about and protecting them from government and private business ill-intent and dishonesty. A hotline was created for residents to report police corruption and brutality.

Jesse himself explained how he had been cold-cocked and beaten up by five of New Orleans' finest after he accidentally wandered into a melee that the police were starting to break up. Jesse explained how there was really a terrific community fellowship and an old, old culture in the Lower Ninth Ward. Generation after generation of families have lived here and everybody on a street knows everybody else. So what a compound tragedy it will be if this community is not revived.

I asked about the levee system, because I had noted how low it looked to me. Jesse anecdotally described how if one is a good jumper, you can stretch your arm up, leap up and barely touch the top of the levee in certain places. Not very encouraging. That is why, ultimately, New Orleans needs an entirely new engineering project to offer this invaluable city flood and surge protection to suit the challenges of the 21st Century. But that would take a massive New Deal Era TVA-style project, something totally beyond the thinking and capability of the atomistic, corporate-minded Bush Administration.

To add injury to insult regarding the levees, Jesse and Dan conveyed how Mississippi River cruise ship lines were attempting to build docking facilities on the far northern end of the Lower Ninth on a natural hurricane barrier called the Cypress Triangle. This would destroy much of this natural defense against flooding and put residents at even greater risk. To compound matters, they also want to construct dangerous and garish high-voltage towers in the ward, an example of the utter callousness and folly of corporations untethered from social needs. The Army Corps of Engineers' proffered advice to residents in light of all the above is: Put your houses on stilts.

Returning to Friday afternoon timewise, after talking to volunteers, I hopped back in my car and drove over to the southside to survey the damage there. I saw much of the same, but with less destructive intensity, and there were more signs of life, functioning houses here and there, neighbors talking, more cars and trucks driving about, so this was a hopeful sign of progress.

By now it was late afternoon with the sun low on the horizon, so I slowly turned back onto N. Claiborne Avenue and up and over the draw bridge, headed for a look at the French Quarter, which I soon discovered looks completely recovered from Katrina, a stark, stark contrast to what I had just witnessed.

I left the Lower Ninth Ward with competing emotions flowing through me. On the one hand, the enormity of the destruction was unnerving and depressing. On the other hand, the spirit of love, selfless service and dedication among the volunteers I met was absolutely inspiring. If this spirit is contagious enough to spread throughout America, then New Orleans and the Lower Ninth will survive and flourish. But if the current paradigm of privatization, "halliburtonization" as some call it, prevails down here, then the Devil will get his due.

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