New Orleans: Katrina, Isaac, and Disaster Relief

Next on my schedule: Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast – I was looking forward to hearing the southern perspective on poverty and living on the dole. New York had opened my eyes to a level of welfare abuse I was still struggling to wrap my head around, and I was wondering what I would find in a gentler, calmer, and more rural part of the country, though an area with some of the highest poverty rates nationwide.

Unfortunately, Hurricane Isaac, much bigger and meaner than me, called dibs, so my trip ended up being a thirty-six hour layover in New Orleans before catching one of the last flights out before Isaac hit.

It was quite fitting that I ended up in New Orleans as it braced for the coming onslaught, because much of what makes New Orleans the New Orleans it is today is its devastation from Hurricane Katrina. Seven years seems like a long time ago, until you take a walk through the city, as I did, and see all the boarded up houses, all the houses with new siding along the bottom five to ten feet of their foundations, all the piles of rubble and new construction. This city is not now, nor will it ever be in the future, the city it once was. From all accounts, while it is rebuilding, it will carry permanent physical and psychic scars. Some parts of the city remain vacant, piles of rubble slowly being hauled off to dumps, soggy and rotting piles of detritus ample testament to the destruction wreaked when Katrina slammed in.

Talking to residents, especially on that day, knowing that another hurricane would soon descend upon them, you could sense the collective post-traumatic stress disorder, and it made the topic of this project take on a whole new dimension. For many in New Orleans, the hurricane took everything they had, and people who couldn’t fathom circumstances that would lead to ending up on public assistance found themselves completely dependent for the first time in their lives. Unfortunately, for too many this has become a permanent condition.

I met John while he was panhandling on a park bench on the riverside near the French Quarter. John is homeless, and has the kind of life story that will break your heart, and yet he was cheerful, upbeat, and so full of “God blessed me” and “I am so lucky” sentiments I couldn’t help thinking I could learn a lot about counting my blessings if I hung out with him for the day. Never married, John nonetheless had three children; his daughter lives outside the city, and his eldest son is in jail for life because he arranged for his younger brother’s murder in a botched scheme to collect his life insurance money. John himself was shot in the head several years ago, accidentally, during a hunting accident, and his speech remains impaired as a result.

I asked John what he lives on, and he acknowledged that he is on food stamps and has the free phone as well. In addition, there is a vast social service network that exists in New Orleans, and John has a hot meal every night if he wants one, knows where to shower and wash clothes, where he can stash a bag of clothes for a few days, and where to go to get medical care for the indigent. Homelessness in New Orleans is endemic, and vastly increased after Katrina. The number of homeless families is enormous, and on any given day the lines outside shelters and foods banks wrap the block. I had noticed many people sleeping under one of the underpasses in another area of the city, and John confirmed that that particular parking area is a gathering place to sleep at night, and if I went there after dinner had been served at the nearby soup kitchen I would see the whole parking area filled with people camping out for the night.

While talking to John, I couldn’t help thinking what a complicated maze he lives in, and what a challenge it must be to get through each day, and I also wondered how he will fare through Hurricane Isaac, though he seemed to have it all figured out, and knew exactly where he would sit out the storm. As we wrapped up our chat I asked him how he would describe his life, and  with the first sad look I had seen cross his face he looked me in the eye and said “I’m just surviving…just, surviving, that’s all. I’m not living, this isn’t a life…I’m just surviving, ma’am.”

And for me, this is the essence of  the critical, essential distinction that must be made, about what we are talking about when we talk about the role of economic aid, versus economic dependence. I think all Americans would agree that no one should ever have to face disaster alone – we certainly should lend a hand to fellow citizens who find themselves in the dire straits those who survived Katrina found themselves in. But what we should not do is relegate those people to a lifetime on public assistance – what we should do is give them a hand up, NOT a hand out for life. While what happened is god-awful, what it has spawned is much worse, and we must find a way to do better.