We won’t be having a meeting this Wednesday, so enjoy your Thanksgiving break! Layout will begin Monday the 26th, we’ll update you on exact times later. Included here is an article about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina from the latest issue.
A destroyed courthouse sat for two years in Plaquemines Parish, he said. Kids would play inside of it.
After the Storm: Louisiana Two Years After Katrina
Written by WALLACE MCKELVEY / Photographs by ANDREW SOPER
FEMA flatly ignored an Emergency Communities volunteer trying to get a trailer for a homeless family in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, a region hit particularly hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The volunteer called again the next day, saying he was the “director of procurement” for the nonprofit organization. The trailer was soon on its way.
“Our leader told us that when you want something from the government, make up a fancy title for yourself,” said UD student Andrew Soper, who volunteered at EC this summer.
Emergency Communities is one of many organizations that have stepped up where FEMA has fallen short in the wake of Katrina. It sets up community centers, which provide three hot meals daily as well as free internet, laundry, and long distance telephone service. The centers become the main focus point for redevelopment in the community. Emergency Communities’ goal is to transfer the centers to the community, while EC builds more centers in other affected areas.
Soper organized a summer camp at the EC center in the Diamond Trailer Park, an enclave of FEMA trailers 60 miles east of New Orleans in a soggy field surrounded by a fence.
“It’s the second largest park in Louisiana,” Soper said. “And it has the highest crime rate of any park.”
With a miniscule budget, the volunteers organized daily activities for up to 50 or 60 children at the park. These included field trips to the Audubon Zoo and the recently refurbished YMCA pool in New Orleans.
Clowns Without Borders, which regularly travels through third-world countries and war zones like Haiti and Serbia, came to the camp with red noses and face paint in their arsenal.
McGruff’s visit was more ho-hum.
“He came with the sheriff, got his picture taken, handed out coloring books, and peaced out,” Soper said. “He was there for five minutes.”
Deborah Alvarez, a UD English education professor who has conducted research and hosted a winter session in New Orleans, said problems in the school system were exacerbated by the hurricane.
Of the 127 public schools in the Orleans Parish School District, 120 were classified as in academic emergency and transferred to the Recovery School District in the Fall of 2005 before Katrina hit.
Alvarez and her winter session students helped teachers at John McDonogh High School prepare their students for the LEAP exam, a standardized testing program.
“[The students] were made to take the exams in the Spring of ’07,” Alvarez said. “During ’05-’06, many of these kids went to school for one week – the week before Katrina. Then they were evacuated and displaced. Some of them may have missed their entire freshman, sophomore, and junior year.”
According to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, 83 of the 127 schools were scheduled to be open for the ’07-’08 school year.
As a result of many public schools being heavily damaged and still closed, some students attend schools across town. Likewise, some schools focus on one subject area – math, science, or the arts.
“There isn’t any more a ‘neighborhood school,” Alvarez said. “It’s created a real mess.”
New Orleans schools also face the problem of hiring teachers. After Katrina, approximately 7500 teachers were fired and advised to find positions elsewhere.
“There’s a desperate need for teachers who are highly qualified in almost every discipline,” she said.
One of the greatest difficulties facing displaced residents in southern Louisiana and Mississippi is the lack of infrastructure.
The roads are in poor condition, public services are still well below their pre-Katrina levels, and there is a lot of red tape to go through to get aid from the government.
“There are no grocery stores in the Lower Ninth,” Soper said of predominantly black New Orleans neighborhood, which was inundated by water from failed levees. “If you want to buy groceries, you had to get on a bus and drive somewhere.”
Alvarez said that those who wanted to return to New Orleans faced housing shortages and inflation.
“After the storm, the apartment you could have rented for $300 a month, now was $750-$100,” Alvarez said. “People couldn’t afford to move back.”
Businesses across the city were closed due to flooding, leading to a shortage of services and materials. Construction suppliers like Home Depot were also closed, preventing residents who returned in the months after Katrina from rebuilding. Due to the closure of businesses, it was also difficult for returning residents to find jobs.
During winter session, Alvarez said one of her students suffered appendicitis. She was first taken to a doctor in a trailer home, before being taken to a hospital outside New Orleans.
Compounding the problems of infrastructure and public services is the Louisiana eminent domain law.
“If you don’t maintain your property for a certain amount of time, the government seizes it,” Soper said.
The specter of losing thousands of working-class homes, often a family’s most valuable possession, has led to legal battles and protests to prevent the law from being enforced.
Emergency Communities volunteers have regularly mowed the lawns of residents who don’t have the means to return to New Orleans and rebuild.
ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, has had a number of victories against eminent domain through the courts system.
Thus far, no residents have been evicted from their homes, despite threats from Mayor Ray Nagin of mass-demolition in early 2006.
Soper said that walking through the Lower Ninth Ward was a strange experience.
“It’s unlike anyplace else – it’s a ghost town,” he said.
Whole neighborhoods are empty, devoid of life. Houses have sat vacant for two years and only a few people have returned. Spray-paint markings remain on the doors from when rescuers came through, tallying people rescued or corpses recovered.
“It’s safe to walk through during the day, but you don’t want to go there at night,” Soper said. “It’s so unsafe they still have MPs patrolling it.”
Regular police patrol the neighborhoods, while the military police drive around the maze of streets in Humvees.
“One EC volunteer was actually kidnapped,” he said.
The female volunteer had taken a taxi from the airport to the community center, and along the way the vehicle was carjacked at gunpoint. The carjacker told the driver to take him somewhere, but he was distracted and the driver and passenger escaped.
“Fortunately no one was hurt and the volunteer ended up staying,” Soper said.
Senseless violence is a fact of life in New Orleans, post-Katrina.
“There are a lot of desperate people in New Orleans,” Alvarez said. “Desperate for money.”
Alvarez said one of the teachers she worked with had moved from the Lower Ninth to the Marigny, near the French Quarter, and knew a barber who was trying to keep his business in the neighborhood alive.
“He was murdered in his trailer for 34 dollars,” she said.
Alvarez said a lot of drug dealers have returned, hoping to get their place back, which accounts for much of the violence.
The hurricane took an extreme psychological toll on its victims, which hasn’t been addressed due to the lack of mental health services in New Orleans.
“For two years, kids had to take on adult responsibilities,” Alvarez said. “There’s no homecoming, dances, or football games. You go to school and come home. This fall, it seems like the kids wanted those things back. They don’t want to be adults anymore.
“One of the things that trauma does to adults and adolescents is the stress focuses the energies of the brain on surviving the day. It’s hard to sit in the classroom and learn quadratic equations when all your mental and physical energy is focused on staying alive, living past today.”
The psychological trauma causes many students to engage in risky behavior. Alvarez remembered the story of one student she interviewed who was evacuated to Texas, then to one parent in Shreveport, and the other in Florida. He entered an air force base, stole a watch, and was arrested.
“He says he was sitting there with shackles on his hands and legs at 16 years old and had to ask himself, ‘what am I doing?’” she said.
Alvarez said some of the students she worked with withdrew into themselves, completely denying that anything had happened.
Harold, a homeless EC volunteer, walked with Soper around the Lower Ninth Ward collecting cans. Though he was outgoing in other respects, Harold would never talk of his feelings about the hurricane or its aftermath.
“You could never understand what it’s like after the storm,” Soper said. “But I wanted to understand.”
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