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Special Series: New Orleans Part II

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Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on New Orleans and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

By HARRIETTE BRAINARD

“This place has no name, and all of us know it. The city is exposed: flesh and blood, muscle and bone. New Orleans is a fresh wound, sliced open by the shrapnel of a storm.”

So notes CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper in his upcoming book on the wreckage left last August in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina called “Dispatches from the Edge.” On the scene for weeks, Cooper recalls the immediacy of the need just to survive and of the serious wound inflicted by the storm.

“When (Coast Guard Pilot Lt. Roerick) sleeps,” Cooper relayed in one report, “she still sees the faces of people waiting to be rescued. ‘You go to bed at night completely exhausted,’ she says, ‘knowing there are still thousands of people out there. You can’t get them all. You want to scoop them all up … It’s like an out-of-body experience — you know, to see that, to see it in person, to see it live — people crawling out of their attics onto the rooftops and signaling you for help.’”

Today the needs are less immediate, but massive, nonetheless.

The Louisiana Recovery Authority was formed with the motto “Moving toward a safer, stronger, smarter Louisiana.” It is an organization created by the state that has committed itself to taking a hard look at the future to address what many critics have suggested has been an overly partisan discussion.

“Someone has to be tough, to stand up and to tell the truth. Every neighborhood (as it is now) will not be able to come back safe and viable,” writes New Orleans-based scientist Ivor Van Heerden in his book “The Storm.”

Those are key words, truth and safety, and the question on the minds of many throughout that region is just what is the future of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast and, particularly, of New Orleans? As important, people are asking: Who is in the driver seat, who is making all the decisions?

Eight months after Hurricane Katrina pummeled New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region of Louisiana and Mississippi, those questions are weighing heavily on a region that is still struggling with the massive task of reconstruction and the daily disappointments caused by bureaucratic delays and political gamesmanship.

The problems that remain are acute. According to the Louisiana Recovery Authority, Katrina “was the worst natural — and manmade — disaster our country as ever known. The numbers are staggering: More than 200,000 homes were destroyed and more than 675,000 people were displaced by Katrina alone — the largest single displacement since the Dustbowl.”

In Van Heerden’s book, the title for chapter 7 asks, “Is anyone in charge here?” This chapter’s thrust is that no one was in charge and no one was prepared. The crime, Van Heerden says, is that every leading specialist had been warning of such a disaster for years. The fact that officials at the city, state and federal levels were aware of the levees’ vulnerability, and still were not prepared for the aftermath of the hurricane, “is both a man-made tragedy,” Van Heerden says, and a huge problem for the future of New Orleans.

Residents remain afraid and nervous, he writes, because there are no assurances that politics will be put aside; no assurance that things will change.

“Poor preparation for a predicted disaster exacerbates the problems of coping with the aftermath of that disaster exponentially,” he continues, noting that there were thousands of stranded residents without food or water for a week, yet “some aid agencies said they had waited for three days, their vehicles packed with water and food, because FEMA had said not to go in unless they had the necessary paperwork from the state — the state knew nothing about this.”

In a television interview in the few days after the hurricane hit New Orleans and breached the levees, President George W. Bush said he didn’t think anyone anticipated the levees would fail. In fact, experts had been predicting such a failure for years.

“The science is the easy part. The hard part is overcoming the narrow-mindedness and selfishness of politics and business as usual,” Van Heerden writes. “For decades, the two have undermined plan after plan to restore the wetlands, build new ones and thereby protect people and property. They have played hell with improving the existing levee system.”

SCOPE OF THE DISASTER

In Cooper’s dispatches, he reports the disaster’s scope. More than 2 million people were evacuated before and after Katrina hit. One million-plus were displaced from their homes for months, while half a million were in shelters within the first two weeks of the disaster. In the six days after Katrina, Coast Guard pilots saved 6,471 lives — nearly twice as many as they saved during previous storms in the past 50 years combined.

And those facts don’t include the hundreds saved by individual acts of heroism.

While scientists had predicted such a disaster was possible, the political will to be prepared was missing and no one seems accountable for the mistakes made. One unfortunate fact is that 40 percent of the state’s 7,000 National Guard troops were on duty in Iraq.

The lack of federal help and the inefficiency of the state and federal aid when it finally came prompted disbelief among those in the know, such as Van Heerden.

“As I drove to Baton Rouge, I began getting angry,” he writes. “As the days advanced, I got angrier. New Orleans had not even been the bull’s eye of the storm, which also turned out to be less powerful than expected. Nevertheless, much of the city was going under, with the whole world watching in disbelief. How could the United States of America have left one of its crown jewel cities so vulnerable to a preventable disaster that I and many others had been warning about for years.”

But that anger slowly changed to personal resolve as the days went by. Cooper, who lived amidst the aftermath of Katrina while filing stories for CNN, wrote of that transformation in “Dispatches from the Edge.”

“I’m not shocked anymore by the bodies, the blunders. You can’t stay stunned forever. The anger doesn’t go away, but it settles somewhere behind your heart; it deepens into resolve. I feel connected to what’s around me, no longer just observing. I feel I am living it, breathing it. There is no hotel to go back to, isolated from the destruction, as there was when I covered the tsunami in Sri Lanka. We are surrounded, all day, all night. There’s no escape. I wouldn’t want to get away even if I could. I don’t check my voicemail for messages. I don’t call home. I never want to leave.”

MIDD STUDENTS RESPOND

Cooper’s intense emotions are not an anomaly. Reports from local sources, including the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which recently won several Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of the disaster, have noted the tremendous outpouring of volunteer support throughout the nation. Many county residents have been part of that effort, including a strong connection through Middlebury College.

Frustrated with the federal government’s response and anxious to do something, three Middlebury College students who hail from New Orleans, and a transfer from Tulane University, formed the Hurricane Relief Coalition (HRC) last fall.

Sarah Applebaum, Emily Peterson, Matt Amoss and the Tulane student held a week of events at the college that raised money for a high school writing program in New Orleans. Peterson continued her efforts by designing her own January term program that gave her the opportunity to reconnect with the city as well as being able to get involved directly. Not only did she design a program to help in the rebuilding, but Peterson also wanted to better understand what was going on politically in her hometown. There during the time that the “Bring New Orleans Back Commission” was meeting, she went to all the presentations and blogged and posted all of her notes on the meetings. Peterson’s hope is to get more people directly involved and aware of New Orleans’ current needs and dilemmas.

Although, Peterson has made it a point to be involved at all levels, her focus has narrowed in on the wetlands, which she feels is the single most important issue to resolve in the months and years ahead.

“Like many Louisiana residents I am frustrated that the post-Katrina discourse in Congress consistently focuses around levee protection,” said Peterson, “but fails to emphasize the inherent importance of wetlands. As Tulane professor Oliver Houck states, the wetlands are horizontal levees. They are even more important than the vertical levees.”

In January, Peterson visited an area of the wetlands around New Orleans called Grand Isle. That area, she said, comprises the fastest disappearing land in the nation. In the past 50 years, Peterson said, Louisiana has lost an area of wetlands the size of Rhode Island.

“Glancing across the marsh at the disjointed hoes, one question continues to eat at me,” Peterson said. “When will people realize that what’s happening in the Gulf Coast carries implications for the rest of the nation.”

Because of Louisiana’s ports leading to the Gulf, the state has a direct economic impact on the nation’s agricultural community. Protecting and restoring the stability of Louisiana’s coast reflects what Peterson refers to as “magnanimity” — a notion that suggests that Americans have a moral obligation to protect the land, which, Peterson notes, is also a concept Vermonters hold close to their hearts.

When realizing that the Louisiana coast is “disappearing one football field every 30 minutes,” Peterson said, “we might want to widen our lenses to consider the bigger picture. This land loss will have severe implications for all of us, and especially the generations to come,” Peterson said, because of its long-term impact on the area’s ability to serve as a vital port.

“Beyond Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, and Cajun food, our country is deeply vested in Louisiana,” Peterson explained. “Recall the country’s panic when gas prices soared after Katrina. Without the offshore wells in the Louisiana wetlands, families in New England are left without gas to heat their homes during the frigid winter. Ignore coastal Louisiana, and farmers in 31 states are left without an outlet to export their crops.”

JANUARY TERM

One of the January term courses at Middlebury College this year was a study of the stricken city of New Orleans, followed by a week-long trip to the city to work with the group Common Ground Collective. The 12 Middlebury students and one staff member studied with Will Nash, associate professor of American Literature and Civilization. The course, titled “Katrina and its Aftermath,” examined the history, culture, politics, economics and environmental aspects of the storm.

“When we first began class in Middlebury, I thought I understood what was going on,” said student Sam Timberg of Bethesda, Md. “I saw the statistics and the pictures and had the audacity to think that I grasped the urgency of the post-Katrina city. Nothing could have been further from the truth. There is no way to appreciate the situation until you drive for 15 miles through residential neighborhoods and not see a single undamaged house. No statistic can pull on all five of your senses like walking into a home, feeling the floor boards squish under your feet, the mold overpowering your nose, and seeing unrecognizable family photos caked in mud, finding no semblance under the blue-tarped roofs of the lives that took place there only five months ago.”

Nash’s J-Term course was prompted by his prior visits to New Orleans and by a two-day teach-in about Hurricane Katrina this past October. Noted New Orleans author Tom Piazza came to read during the October event along with Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss. Nash noticed there was a great deal of energy on campus motivating students who wanted to make concrete contributions to relief efforts, so he structured a course to fit those parameters.

In New Orleans, the Middlebury class worked with the national nonprofit HOPE and the Common Ground Collective in Ward 9. Nash’s intent was to provide the students with an understanding of the culture of the city, while also seeing the devastation from the storm and its aftermath. Nash also took the students to experience places unique to New Orleans such as the Rock ’N’ Bowl, where one can dance to and hear a live band while bowling.

“It was important for the students to see the areas of the city that were still vibrant — see the reason to work toward its preservation,” said Nash. “It was all very powerful, humbling, painful and uplifting all at the same time — an indescribable experience.”

Amidst the devastation, Nash said the class returned with an admiration for the city’s spirit and its people. “We encountered no hostility at all, we only encountered open, friendly people — all working together toward a common goal.”

Middlebury College student and New Orleans resident Matt Amoss explained that the city holds a charm and appeal because of its wide diversity.

“New Orleans is special because there is such a range of cultures and influences that all come together to make New Orleans happen,” he said in a recent conversation. “Its culture is unique to the U.S. and to the world. It’s nothing you can pinpoint, but the feeling you get when you are there.”

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

One of the biggest issues concerning the reconstruction efforts in New Orleans — beyond the obvious wetlands, levee and broken pump issues — is the feeling that government at all levels is doing so little. Casual visitors are shocked to find that there are still trees on official buildings, houses sit idle in mud and mold, and a cell tower still lies on the roof of one of the police barracks within the city limits.

The hope, it seems, has been the work of the people themselves and the incredible grassroots effort from volunteers. Among the most active groups is the Katrina Crew started by two friends from the Uptown area of New Orleans. They became so frustrated with the lack of government help and the mounting piles of trash and mess that they decided to go out and do it themselves. Subsequently, they started picking up trash throughout the devastated parishes, renting trucks and organizing volunteers.

Another organization, Women of the Storm, has a mission to inform Congress of the desperate plight the city faces. One goal is to get as many representatives and senators to the city to witness the devastation and slow recovery as possible. Both groups demonstrate the initiative the city desperately needs as well as the strength of the people who live here.

“Demanding accountability is no game, and there’s nothing wrong with trying to understand who made mistakes, who failed,” said CNN’s Cooper. “If no one is held accountable for their decisions, for their actions, all of this will happen again.”

What’s perhaps unique about the experience of those who visit the city, and especially those who have spent time working to rebuild New Orleans, is a common desire to do all they can to help and to motivate others to become involved. But it’s a concern, as much as a hope.

“I worry,” CNN’s Cooper wrote, “that our cameras are not capturing enough. I worry that I’m letting New Orleans down.”

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