Forgetting Katrina?  Not In New Orleans

By Grace Dyrud


Tourists and conventioneers (as we were in 2000 and again in August, 2006) who fly in and stay in New Orleans’ business district, Bourbon St., and the Garden District will see little difference before and after Katrina.  In these areas there is still some unrepaired wind damage, windows and roofs, but the really obvious difference is the extreme decrease in people and cars.  Go a little farther and the New Orleans market is empty, though.


While we were not able to go to the most devastated areas such as the 9th ward, we were told that not much is happening, not even cleanup.  Those who had been there said it looked like “World War II.”  We saw a sign that said that 1300 small tourist businesses in the French Quarter and elsewhere were gone.  There is a prevailing bad attitude toward government, especially FEMA, in conversation, on signs and T-shirts. 


What we did see was upsetting enough!  A middle class area on the New Orleans side of the 17th St. canal is now block after block of deserted, damaged homes with doors and windows out, roofs askew, and debris piles.  Water had been up to second floor level.  Houses had codes on them such as 0 (no dead) and 1 cat.  Here and there were some sparsely placed FEMA trailers and occasionally obvious efforts to clean, gut and move back, and one newly built modular “show house.”


What is happening  Much cleanup is still going on – we saw a group of Pennsylvania students cleaning debris in a park.  A Minnesota group has come five times to work on houses.  The governor got 150,000 abandoned cars out of town last month.  Some homes are being leveled for structural and mold reasons (we saw “Gulf Mold Control” vans.)   Keep in mind that people may still be paying on the mortgages, and have no insurance money (even if they had insurance).  Many people are waiting for the go or no go ahead of money, permits, or condemnations.  The St. Charles street car will not be running for a year or two.   Two thirds of the population remained or have returned.  ACLU has taken up the case of 6,000 prisoners who had been in the jails and are now incarcerated around the country in prison limbo. 


Institutions are very slowly coming back.  A jury pool was recently selected.  Schools (20%) are reopening and all colleges are open, but critically down in enrollment.  Businesses are trying to start up even in St., but critically down in enrollment.  Businesses are trying to start up even in St. Bernard parish with the hope that if people see there is a school, a grocery store and a clinic, they will return.  Still there is a severe lack of mental health and hospital facilities.  The New Orleans Public Library is setting up a picture memorial of flood victims (1200+).  There will be pin number records of caskets so if ever again they float away there will be a record of where they came from.

Still on the hopeful side, New Orleans has already had several much needed celebrations such as Mardi Gras.  In September, 06, the Saints came back to the Superdome to play their first game after Katrina in New Orleans.     

What is still needed?  Tourists (the American Psychological Association which just met there brought in 17 million dollars), money, volunteers and organizations which can make good use of volunteers.  100,000 more FEMA trailers.  Grants for people without insurance (there is 7 million set aside, not yet handed out).  Help for those who did have insurance.  Whatever can keep up the hope.  Much gratitude was expressedboth for coming and to “volunteers who have done more than the government.” 


What’s holding up reconstruction?  Moneylack of it.  Delays in getting money to homeowners and small businesses due to slow establishment of bureaucracies and lawsuits against insurance companies who say they need not pay for water damage, though wind destroyed homes first in many cases.  Delays in decision makingcondemnations and permits. 


What lessons can we gain? 

  1. Have a plan with a line of authority that uses previously structured organizations, especially local ones such as the American Red Cross, churches, and school districts.
  2. Government should have organizations in place for disasters.  Government should help, not just veto, or slow down reconstruction.  Government should be prepared to hire extra inspectors from other parts of the country to speed reconstruction.
  3. Be ready to use volunteers quickly (many sat around).
  4. Get American Red Cross training.  Sometimes volunteers cannot get permission to go into disaster areas without it.
  5. Disasters affect not only their sites, but other places as well.  Several hundred thousand refugees went to Houston and San Antonio and 700 hundred families even came to St. Paul.

6.  Keep at the reconstruction task until people can carry on in normal ways.


Maybe the rest of the world is forgetting Katrina.  People in New Orleans don’t go a day without remembering.