Saturday, April 01, 2006

We Are Not Ok

I got an email from fellow NOLA blogger Markus, the writer of the Wet Bank Guide, yesterday. He was thinking that we needed to do a campaign, letting people know that although the Quarter is basically fine (if you don't count the number of businesses and clubs that are open on a limited basis or going out of business), that the rest of New Orleans is still dealing with serious issues. The timing of his email was interesting, because this week I'd heard from people who were still hungry for information about what's going on here, and others who were just plain sick of it. Those of us here get sick of it too, but here we are.

I sat on the porch of a friend last week who, because of work related issues, was moving to Houston this week. We talked a lot about how living here with others who "get it" is important to us. Friends here don't look at you funny if you are suddenly sobbing because the strains of "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans" are coming out of the radio speakers. People here don't think questions like How much water did you get? Y'all getting any mail? When is the deadline for debris pickup? are strange at all.

It had been brought to my attention that I had written via email to a large mailing list more than 54,000 words since early September. Our phone lines, gratefully, were working, and our neighbor had set up a generator in the backyard that powered both our houses in limited spurts. I set up a dialup connection through a New Mexico AOL access number, since none of the Louisiana access numbers were working. And I wrote. Markus' idea about a campaign made me look back at some of what I'd written in those days just after the storm. Some of it was wrenching for me to read as it felt like it was just yesterday. In fact, it WAS just yesterday. This is not an event that took place five years ago, but seven MONTHS ago. A lot of it is still raw, and a lot of the problems are still here and indeed, bigger just by virtue of languishing in the limbo of bickering and inaction.

Written 9.14.2005
Schools here MIGHT open in January but no one knows. The Post Office MIGHT be up and running this week. No one actually knows. Welfare checks are lost, payroll checks can't get to the people via direct deposit because some of the banks still aren't quite up to par. The situation is so fluid that from one day to the next, hell, from morning to afternoon, things change radically. The speed with which some things are being done is incredible, then there are other things that just are not being done at all.
Some schools have opened, and the new date for most of the kids to be back in school is this month. But still in some areas no one knows which schools will be opening when. There are kids in my neighborhood who have missed the entire school year so far and have no idea when they're going back. The Post Office still isn't working quite right, although it's better. A friend got a catalog the other day and it was reason to celebrate! The banks are up and running, so there are fewer glitches with ATM cards, etc. But there absolutely are still things "that just are not being done at all."

Written 9.15.2005
As the power comes on ice is no longer an issue. Stores are opening up, but farther down the Westbank from us so people with no cars will still be in need. What we're finding is that this storm not only took the roofs off houses (in fact a block from our virtually untouched house a house was removed from its foundation and dropped into the intersection. It is now kindling), but it has taken the roof off of some of the pre-Katrina problems that went unnoticed or were purposely ignored. We're finding that some of the problems we're encountering are just pure poverty and these people will still be poor when this is done. That's bothering us a lot. The kind of community outreach that's been done during the aftermath of this storm, needs to continue for some of them who are ill, old, poor and without transportation. A store open 6 miles from here won't do them a damn bit of good if they can't get their food stamps, their money out of the bank if they have any, or transportation to get there. We keep hearing public service announcements, or pieces on the news, saying "Call your doctor and ask. . . . . ." WHAT DOCTOR? These people by and large don't have one, and many of the docs have moved to Texas where Tulane set up shop. I'm not mad at Tulane. They're doing what they have to, and god bless Charity Hospital which has opened their doors again albeit in a limited way. But the people on this side can't GET there. It's on the Eastbank. West Jefferson Medical Center has been wonderful, but again, no public transportation so how do they get there. Many of the people we're seeing were working in service industry jobs, mostly maids at the hotels, things like that, and getting some public assistance. We haven't seen social workers or anything like that running around here.

Not much different now. Charity Hospital is being argued over. Some doctors from there think that for the right price, it can be renovated and put back into service. Others think the whole building needs to be abandoned, but interestingly they have no ideas about what to replace it with. I tend to agree with the renovation idea, but it'll be years before anything is decided. Tulane is back and providing medical services. Public transportation is slowly getting back up and running, but many people are still just plain stuck. A lot of the doctors didn't come back, and many who did come back left again when they found that their patient base had shrunk so significantly that it wasn't economically viable for them to stay in private practice here. There is still an absence of social workers and with rents skyrocketing and crime returning, the same problems we had before are glaring amid the rubble.

Written 9.18.2006
We were both okay til we got to the front of the Cathedral, then all I could do was cry. I cried for the next four blocks as we made our way around the Square. Stacks of cots where the artists usually are. One artist who paints cats every day near the hack stand where the buggies sit, had dripped paint for years on the block at the bottom of the fence around the Square. The paint was still there, she wasn't and we hoped that she was okay. Shops in the Pontalba building filled with masks all fine, just waiting for the doors to open, and in front of them bags and bags of trash and a lost filthy surgical mask. Giant media trucks and mobile medical units in front of Cafe du Monde. No human statues, no jugglers, no balloon guys, not even "One Note Johnny", a guy who played on the Square for change and annoyed everyone with his one note. We were worried about all of them and wishing we could hear his one note.

The media trucks are gone, some of the artists and street entertainers are back. But the area is still very quiet and so many of the New Orleans musicians are gone maybe never to move home. Now we walk by the Cathedral and find that it's not open as many hours as before. Some of the card readers have returned, but we still expect to turn around and find six camoflaged humvees parked along the side of Jackson Square. The images from that time are seared into our memories and sometimes we fall silent as we find the Square nearly abandoned some evenings. It's jolting to hear only your own footsteps on the Square at 7:30PM on a Tuesday night. We're starting to hear a few more footsteps these days and it doesn't feel quite so much like we're living on the moon.

Written 11.22.2005
Signs on houses, "two dead cats", "dog found DOA in kitchen". Sign on a tree, "Found, beautiful little kitten found alive. Please call this number." And that's just the animals. Piles of boats in marinas. Piles of boats is a strange thing to say, but that's what it looks like. Yes, that's what it looks like still, three months after the storm.
We've made some wonderful new friends since the storm, people we wouldn't have known had Katrina not come through here. People who are also living this surreal existence and understand if we've got tears in our eyes 15 minutes from now, because they will have them too 15 minutes after that. Every single one of those people is precious, as anything that survived this storm is made more precious by virtue of its survival.

The X-Code signs are still on many many houses, a constant reminder of devastation, rescue and bodies. You think you're used to seeing them, but then realize that your eye immediately drifts hopefully to one quadrant of the X, and you breathe a sigh of relief when you see a zero there. These are daily reminders. Many of the boats are still piled high and people here are still in an unpredictable emotional state. We are starting to see fewer tears and more anger, often misdirected. People here are already counting down the days til the next hurricane season and the Big Easy has become the Big Un-Easy as people whisper about levees with flashes of fear in their eyes. As Markus said, We are NOT ok.

Also from 11.22.2005
Sixty percent of the city still has no power, which is a minor inconvenience if your house isn't even standing anymore. The population of New Orleans at night is now about 60,000, down from nearly 500,000 prior to the storm. A friend who lives about three blocks from us said he is one of two or three people on his block at night. We're not quite sure how to answer people who ask us if New Orleans is okay now. It would take lots of time to explain and saying "It's doing okay"---which we do say a lot of the time just to not go into it---does a huge disservice to the city that we love. But we simply don't know what else to say sometimes.

The percentage of the city still living without power is now down to about 35% I heard the other day. That's still a lot of people and the weather is getting warm. Now, though, there won't be anyone delivering ice to them. The population is now about 2/5 of our pre-Katrina numbers, but still, that means more than half of us haven't come home or had to leave again once here. We still sometimes don't know how to answer the question of are we okay. How much time do ya have? How much do you really want to know? I've got food in my fridge, my power is on, the garbage gets picked up mostly. We noticed leaning power poles and street signs the other day and D mused that we were so used to it that we didn't realize they weren't supposed to be that way. We've seen the look in our visitors' eyes as they see our city. Many can't even articulate their emotions for days or weeks. We live with it and people outside of here wonder why we're so strident.

Written 12.2.2006 about Thanksgiving dinner, three months after Katrina
And we talked about our determination to stay and help rebuild this wonderful city. Then our friend said, "I really hate poetry, but am wondering if you all would mind if I read this?" We said no, of course we wouldn't mind. He had searched for days for this passage from "Ulysses" by Tennyson:

"Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

We all teared up over that one, and still do when we think about it. It all just seemed surreal. Thanksgiving dinner in a great New Orleans restaurant, all of us at that table traumatized in some way but grateful to be with others who "got it." We knew then and know for sure now, that there were still bodies in the wood and mud blenders that had once been homes. And although we try not to think about it alot now, we know there will be yet more found. It hovers on the edge of our consciousness and pops out as a flash of pain as the news reporter says, "Another body found. . . "

Also written 12.2.2006
But for now, remember that for you: The mail comes to your house every single day. The stores are open, some 24 hours and you don't even have to think about it. Custody issues in your city are no doubt difficult as they all are, but the various parties aren't scattered all over the country and the records at your courthouse are not flooded and being frozen so they can be re-copied. Gas prices are up, but most of your gas stations are open. Businesses that were there last week, are probably still there. Your neighbors, those loudmouths, are still annoying you, but they're still there. Your city's population hasn't gone from 500K to 60K in three months. Your doctor is probably still right where you left him or her. More importantly, you know where your family is whether you want to know or not. Your mayor doesn't have to do a tour rivalling U2 in order to talk with his citizens. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The mental health issues are skyrocketing. The grief counselling clinic is saying that people come in because they lost a loved one in the storm, then the counsellor finds out that this person also lost his house, his belongings, his job, his friends, his traditions, and his family is scattered into four states.

That pretty much stands as written. The only real changes are the population, the gas stations (most are open now), and the length of time from the storm.

As Markus said, We are not okay.

I figured I better read Markus' post We Are Not Ok to make sure we weren't both saying the same thing. It's a stunning piece of writing. He said it better than I could.

Also check out the beautifully written post on Traveling Mermaid's site. We Are Not Ok I Feel Like a Fraud She has shown herself to be anything but a fraud with this piece as she recounts with brutal honesty what her life is like here and calls it "grinding."

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