Hurricane Katrina was over and I was relieved. I’d been glued to CNN and the Weather Channel for days, fearful of heavy damage to the Gulf Coast. The eye had passed through my parents’ hometown of Slidell, Louisiana and, by all accounts, it wasn’t as bad as anticipated. My parents had evacuated before the storm as was their routine. My sister and her husband had left New Orleans; my brother and his family had left their suburban home, and all were checking in by phone to assure me of their safety.
I slept well that night, knowing that the worst of the storm was past. By the next morning, however, reports were surfacing of breaking levees in the city, and a rush of water from Lake Pontchartrain was pushed by the backwinds of the hurricane with such force that it practically emptied the lake (the nation’s largest outside of the Great Lakes) into the city of Slidell.
The horror of devastation was just unfolding. My parents’ home, a mile north of the lake, was engulfed in three and a half feet of lake water and gunk. Numerous aunts and uncles and cousins were similarly flooded. The waters remained for days. My sister’s home, a small apartment in the city, was swamped by the levee breaches. My brother’s home, southwest of the city, was untouched.
Residents in Slidell were not allowed, for safety reasons, to return to their homes for over a week, and the anxiety of not knowing what to expect was taking a toll on my parents, Rose and Chuck. By then the fetid waters had ruined everything they soaked, and they soaked everything. Never mind that Rose and Chuck lost nearly every worldly possession–their biggest concern was how they were going to clean up the mess that Katrina left behind. With the help of church volunteers from across the country, and with the help of Navy corpsmen sent in to assist, they were able to oversee the gutting of their home, leaving only the brick exterior and the remaining wall studs intact.
After the cleanup, my parents lived with family members, friends, and total strangers in a shuffle of temporary homes until they could get settled again. Their mailing address changed a half dozen times once mail service resumed. While sharing some time with me in Elyria, they received a call from a neighbor that FEMA had parked a trailer in their front yard, attached utilities to it, and were expecting them to return to pick up the keys. Rose and Chuck, people of solid middle-class economic status, had neither wanted or needed a FEMA trailer, but it was there. Sadly, they had neighbors who desperately needed a trailer and could not get one.
Two years later, FEMA trailers still dot the neighborhood. My parents sold their gutted home to a real estate agent who worked to restore it. It sits as a vacant reminder of the past 40 years of my parents’ life. Last spring, they purchased a restored home a few blocks from their old one, where there’s little evidence of the storm except for absence of trees and the rugged mix of weeds and grass that make up the back yard.
Some areas of their hometown, my hometown, still look ghostly. Rebuilding is going on, but two years of frustration and pain has taken its toll on the people, weary and worn. Major infrastructure is being restored in New Orleans but, as news reports continue to highlight, some areas are virtually untouched. The poor and the needy were largely driven out of the area. Those who returned (or never left) still struggle. People are distrustful of government and, perhaps, each other. On one of my recent visits I walked my parent’s new neighborhood to take pictures and was met with suspicion and, in one case, near panic over my presence with a camera.
There is much good that has come of this experience. My family was more tightly bonded as a result. The goodness of strangers was deeply appreciated. Faith was strengthened. Lives started over in a gospel sort of redemption. And yet, the pain continues for many. That’s the sadness of it all, for me. A cousin I spoke to at my dad’s funeral said that his home is still only partially rebuilt; he and his family live on the second floor because the first floor is uninhabitable. His job as a car detailer was washed away in the flooding, and he has begun work now as a construction apprentice. His family was approved in February for government assistance to rebuild their home, but no money has been disbursed yet, and no agency will take responsibility to follow through.
From today’s news:
Although it’s tricky to unravel the maze of federal reports, our best estimate of agency data is that only $35 billion has been appropriated for long-term rebuilding.
Even worse, less than 42 percent of the money set aside has even been spent, much less gotten to those most in need. For example:
Washington set aside $16.7 billion for Community Development Block Grants, one of the two biggest sources of rebuilding funds, especially for housing. But as of March 2007, only $1 billion — just 6 percent — had been spent, almost all of it in Mississippi. Following bad publicity, HUD spent another $3.8 billion on the program between March and July, leaving 70 percent of the funds still unused.
Life goes on after a tragedy, and we can’t measure its value with dollars. But dollars–and volunteers–can relieve suffering. And people along the Gulf Coast are suffering still, two years after the waters rushed in.
[Photo of FEMA trailer from my parents neighborhood. A family of 5 have lived there for two years.]
[Quote from Institute of Southern Studies, via The Daily Dish]