The Katrina Diaries: Breaching the Levee of Faith
Part I: The Summer of Storms
During the 2005 Summer of Storms, I found myself overwhelmed by issues of self-protection, recovery, midstream adjustment and more times than not, the sense of being a powerless observer as events swirled around me. There were feelings of sadness, grief and uncertainty that were contrasted by those of anger and frustration, at times see-sawing within moments of each other. Being located in the relatively safe harbor of Alexandria in Central Louisiana, but with business obligations in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Marksville, I was both an active participant in the recoveries post-Katrina and Rita and a witness to the impact that both storms had on my own hometown, as we hosted the displaced from points farther south.
Much of the last year has been a tug of war of emotion and dogged determination where self-sufficiency has done battle with the forces of political inaction, withstood a firestorm of corruption and cronyism and endured a hurry-up-and-wait reality that has waged a war of attrition on the hardiest of small businesses and families. How much, if anything has changed since August 2005, while we wait for Senate debates on recovery funding, while we wait for leadership to emerge in New Orleans, and while we wait for a sound system of flood protection?
While Hurricane Katrina was whipping New Orleans, flattening Mississippi and undermining the levee structures in St. Bernard, Plaquemines, St. Tammany and Jefferson Parishes, I was plotting a recovery plan for my New Orleans office. In the first week or so, I was tracking down the ten folks from my company's New Orleans office who had scattered to the winds, and I was making arrangements to relocate them to Alexandria. During that first week, my office internet was up, but both local and long distance phone service was either down or spotty. At home, I didn't have access to TV, internet or phones. I was finally able to get online to post, 3-ring Hell at The New International Times blog on September 7th.
September 7, 2005
New International Times
If you want to put a catch-phrase on this whole Katrina debacle call it "3-ring Hell." I told you all over a week ago that Red Cross, FEMA and Homeland Security were screwing the pooch on this drill and it is not getting any better.
Go into any of the Red Cross warehouse shelters armed with stuff the people inside really, really need (like bath towels, underwear--new in the package, or shoes) and they break out the three inch thick, 3-ring binder full of rules and regulations. "Nope, we can't take private donations from individuals." Meanwhile, these tormented souls are trying to clean up in open showers and drying off with paper towels.
Go to the Red Cross volunteer sign up registry and they will not take your contact information unless you have 10 hour blocks of time to dedicate in one place at one time.
Try and get a food, clothing or housing voucher from the Red Cross. They say, "We aren't set up to do that yet." Surely some folks have the prudence to measure empathy with practicality, but I haven't seen it personally. Lots of stories. Lots of heartache and disgust summed up in a song called New Orleans by David Rovics, a sort of troubadour-activist:
Everybody knew that it could happen
The likelihood was clear
The future was coming
And now it's here
They had to fix the levees
Because otherwise they'd break
On one side was the city
Above it was the lake
It was in the daily papers
In bold letters was the writ
What would happen
When the Big One hit
But every year they cut the funding
Just a little more
So they could give it to the Army
To fight their oil war
New Orleans, New Orleans, New Orleans
Some folks are pirating their way into New Orleans and the surrounding areas, but it is a very risky proposition. First, you have to hit the right entry points at just the right time while no one is on patrol, offload your truckloads of stuff (or pack in truckloads of stuff) and then get out. Hopefully, you filled up at Gonzales or some other point between Baton Rouge and Kenner, or you just might not get out. I've heard some tales of daring-do, but two out of the three that I know of directly have failed.
In National Geographic
And the Times-Picayune
They forecast the apocalypse
Said it was coming soon
Preparations must be made, they said
Now is the time
It was years ago they shouted
Inaction was a crime
They said the dikes must be improved
And the wetlands must be saved
But Washington decided
Instead they should be paved
Because malls were more important
Than peoples' lives
So put some gold dust in your eyes
And hope no storm arrives
New Orleans, New Orleans, New Orleans
I've been working with the United Way...mostly unloading 18-wheelers of water, packaged food and clothing at the visitors' center on I-49. They send buses of evacuees there to eat, stretch, and get clothes on their way to where-ever the bus takes them. I think that Shreveport and Dallas have quit taking any more, so I guess they are going to Arkansas or Missouri.
Years and years of warning
No evacuation plan
It was just if the waters rose
Just get out if you can
There were no buses
No one chartered any trains
There was no plan to rescue
All of those who would remain
All the people with no money
All the people with no wheels
All of those who didn't hotwire
One that they could steal
Thousands and thousands of people
Abandoned by the state
Abandoned by their country
Just left to meet their fate
New Orleans, New Orleans, New Orleans
I was angry before at the Red Cross for demanding that the church and community centers be closed down. I am angrier still for FEMA, et. al., sending truckloads of supplies back to from where they came. I am angriest of all at all the authorities who say things are "on track" and for us not to worry about the past and their slow reaction. I thought I was going to spew when Bush was hugging on some preacher Monday talking about all the good the churches were doing... and never mentioning that the churches are breaking ALL the FEMA and Red Cross rules to do it.
And the people died
And then they died some more
They drowned inside their attics
An army of the poor
An army of the destitute
Who couldn't get away
And the world will remember
These sad and awful days
When people shouted from their houses
Dying on their roofs
When people came to find them
They were turned back by the troops
They died there with no water
They died there in the heat
They were shot down by the soldiers
For trying to find some food to eat
New Orleans, New Orleans, New Orleans
Folks, believe me when I tell you that there are tens of thousands in the area that surrounds New Orleans that haven't seen their first Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) or water drop. 40,000 troops doing nothing but canvassing still won't get to everyone for weeks. There is 90,000 square miles in the affected area. And the truth of the matter is that there are probably only 8,000 real troops on the ground; all the others are just promised. My next door neighbor is a senior provisioning officer with the LA National Guard, and he is telling horror stories, things that you are not hearing on TV or in the paper, things that you just don't want to believe, but I trust him. They speak to the gruesome physical conditions and to the operational provisos that the New Orleans military state has become. If that truth comes out, there will be a sea change in this country, but I am not sure that it will be for the better. There are just certain things that we just shouldn't do...
There is still no communications in the area and in some cases FEMA is taking down operational lines. That is the real root of the tragedy...lack of communications. That is a failure on the part of Homeland Security to learn the single most important lesson of 9/11. How can local and state officials direct an operation, when they have been thrust into the stone age, or at the very least, thrust into the very wild west, depending solely on pony-express style messengers to relay information. Indeed, news crews had better communication between New Orleans positioned satellite trucks and New Year City than there is between New Orleans and the capital in Baton Rouge. My provision-officer neighbor is still buying, out of his own pocket, Family Radio Service (FRS) handheld walkie-talkies to supply the National Guard with. That is inexcusable.
I am almost avoiding the news, but it is hard not to look. I haven't been on the internet, only looking late Tuesday (August 30th, 2005) afternoon when I was dismayed to learn President Bush thought he could head up an investigation. The only thing that made my heart sink faster was this morning's (September 7th, 2005) news that our national icon of compassion, Vice President Dick Cheney, was now large and in charge of the recovery effort. I am both sad and angry that a man who believes that domestic policy/domestic spending is a waste of time and money is in charge of the largest humanitarian aid and recovery project in our nation's history.
All I can do is hold up my end: Working feverishly to integrate up here in Alexandria the ten folks from the company's New Orleans office up here and make them as comfortable as I can.
I'd like to think that the nation could take in the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by Katrina, but change starts with the heart and that is the hardest part.
Looking back on that first diary with almost a year of hindsight, it is incredible how short-sighted the Red Cross and FEMA truly were. Less than ten days into the worst natural disaster in our country's history, the Red Cross thought that they could manage this crisis without local communities and without private sector support. New Orleans was under water and 80% of the city would be flooded for weeks...a geographic area equivalent to seven Manhattans. The Red Cross thought it could warehouse all of those displaced people in coliseums and gymnasiums. The specter of FEMA trailers, or seven months spent in hotel rooms had not even occurred to them. Here in Alexandria, the last of the displaced who had been housed in local hotels didn't leave until the first of May, 2006 and the last official shelter in Louisiana or Mississippi didn't close until the end of April, 2006, more than ten months after Katrina came ashore.
Now, several months into the new storm season, one of the most frightening prospects is how little has been done in terms of establishing a viable communications infrastructure. Sure, Louisiana and Mississippi have replaced most of their phone land lines and cell towers have been raised, but emergency communications systems are the same as they ever were. And astonishingly, the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA report that consolidated wireless communications will not go online until late 2007. This projected date is more than six years after 9/11. Unbelievably, we still have not done the single most important thing in safeguarding the nation.
The National Guard is still strapped from equipment lost to Katrina and Rita flooding, as well as strapped by those assets lost to the deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a mean feat of pure publicity, June 3rd, 2006 the National Guard in Louisiana announced the permanent relocation of their headquarters from the Katrina flooded Jackson Barracks outside New Orleans to Camp Beauregard here in Central Louisiana. And for the required photo op, they also took delivery on some 70 odd medium duty 4 and 6-wheel drive trucks that are supposed to bolster our hurricane readiness. That is, if you don't have to travel through water deeper than 36 inches.
[Editors'Note: One month later, in July of 2006, after Poly wrote these diaries, Governor Blanco announced the restoration of the Jackson Barracks in New Orleans'Ninth Ward Jackson Barracks will be restored.]
Looking back again at last year's recovery process, specifically at that period of the last three weeks of September 2005, my company paid an inducement to get an "official" pass into the New Orleans Central Business District (CBD) to retrieve hardware and files; the folks from the New Orleans office began to settle into their cramped quarters in Alexandria, and we started to see some late-comers straggle into Alexandria. These were people that had been displaced for a second time, either from cramped quarters at friends' or distant relatives' or who were just plain tired of living in their cars. So another mass warehouse shelter opened in town and I decided to carry over some books.
I had another "Red Cross moment," which I documented, without censoring my anger, at the New International Times blog. Below is an edited version of what I originally posted as Americans: No tents, No books.
September 21, 2005
New International Times
You know, this whole living in a third world country is getting rather old. Not the crowded streets, not the strained nerves, but the damned ignorance of the thing.
FEMA. Red Cross. I am talking surface of the sun, blazing stupidity.
Perhaps, I underestimated, because this ignorance rises to a level that would offend most third world countries...they think more of themselves than that.
Take one small point: Which rocket scientist said of the Katrina evacuees: "Americans don't live in tents"?
I know plenty at this point that would love a semi-private tent in exchange for their current place in a 5,000 seat indoor coliseum.
Yet, it was in that very 5,000 seat coliseum that I was told by "Rebecca" the Red Cross honcho that these people don't read.
I had stopped by with a van load of books and magazines and was turned away. Apparently, my anger was showing as I headed back toward the van, as one of the "residents" who was reclining on the lawn under a tree asked if I had been turned down for assistance. We chatted over a smoke, he walked over to the van and picked out a couple of books and an armload of Louisiana Sportsman mags and went back to his spot under the tree.
When I was driving off, I started to think about the guy and the tree. If I hadn't been so pissed off, I would have chatted more with him. Let him tell me his story. But what struck me the further I got down the road and the more I thought about it was how, as he was browsing the books in the back of my van, he kept looking back at the tree, then to the books, and then back to the tree. It didn't occur to me until I was driving away that he was concerned about losing his spot under the tree. His spot.
"These people don't read."
This guy left his shady spot on the lawn under a tree for a book. There is not much shade there at the coliseum, the building only casts a bit on the lawn and there are just a handful of trees. His spot for a book. These people don't read.
I took the mags and books to another relief depot that distributes to the non-Red Cross facilities, mostly churches that are doing the yeoman's work around here.
The Red Cross claims to have served 12 million hot meals since Katrina struck. That is a pretty sad statement when you consider that there are probably close to 2 million displaced persons across the three affected states and it has been 20 some odd days now. Just doing simple math tells us that to serve everyone just one meal a day would require the preparation of 40 million meals (2 million x 20).
All the while, Homeland Security is not finalizing contracts to establish semi-permanent housing and the Red Cross is consolidating their facilities into warehouses of people. It is almost too disgusting to retell.
The scenario for these people goes something like this.....take the bus to the center, get in line. Around 9 a.m., they put out an orange parking cone and say "No more for the day." Maybe 200 or 250 get processed each day out of the 15,000 or so that remain unprocessed in the area. The notion that these people will be out of the warehouses in another two weeks is absurd. Again, simple math points out the ridiculousness of the claim: 15,000 divided by 250 equals 60 days, or two months, not two weeks.
Give them a book, if you can't show some compassion and efficiency.
Next, Part II: Wherein We Take a Hit from Rita and I Cook, Poly recounts more "Red Cross Moments" as well as cooking her way through the eye of Rita.
ePluribus Contributors and Fact Checkers:
Welshman, JeninRI, Standingup, Kfred, Vivian, Greyhawk, roxy and cho
about the author:
Polydactyl dons her blogger's hat in Central Louisiana between shifts as a wife, mom, cat-herder and computer healer.
photo and song credits: Sheldon Morton
, Polydactyl, G. Fesmire/dp design, David Rovics
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