Wednesday, August 29, 2007

How can two years ago feel like yesterday?

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall at Buras-Triumph, a town in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. It was the beginning of one of the biggest tragedies ever to hit the U.S. As a natural disaster, Katrina caused considerable damage; as a governmental disaster, its effects reverberate harder than ever.

At the time, I lived in my hometown of Lafayette, La., about 136 miles northwest of New Orleans. Though Hurricane Katrina did not hit Lafayette, we felt its effects in the form of concern for friends, loved ones and others we didn't even know. Our city provided shelter for substantial amounts of refugees, to a degree where we had an entire arena devoted just to pets. For weeks and months afterward, Lafayette was a prime destination for those seeking comfort and safety.

Not that the altruism was pure, of course; with the hospitality came the now-infamous paranoia sparked by the apparently sudden realization that many refugees were the kind of people most of America had ignored for decades. At the same time television stations were calling for volunteers to staff the Cajundome and Blackham Coliseum, radio stations buzzed with horrifying rumors: A woman was carjacked by a Katrina refugee at the southside Wal-Mart. Cajundome volunteers were being held up. Gulf Coast Bank was mobbed by criminals. Lafayette Shooters was...well, you know. City officials literally sprinted to the nearest live mike to dispel these reports, albeit unconvincingly (even though the anecdotes were all false). Even after a year, homicides were reflexively blamed on the euphemistically named "New Orleans presence" - even when all involved were locals.

For a few days in September 2005, I volunteered at the Cajundome, working long shifts and doing anything anyone asked me to do. I kept a detailed diary here, which is definitely worth another read. The unfortunate effect of this work was the most severe illness I've ever had in my life, which (combined with other personal issues) kept me from volunteering as much I wanted to. But I've never stopped thinking about those I met, who I otherwise would never have spoken to, even as a frequent New Orleans traveler. These exhausted, grateful people were not the plasma TV-stealing, helicopter-shooting thugs that are too often associated with Katrina evacuees these days.

That perception, combined with the government's ineptitude and the media's willingness to look away once ratings went down, often gives the impression that everything has returned to normal in the Big Easy. In the words of some people I met in Utah, "We don't hear about it at all anymore." I've heard similar thoughts in Missouri. In better times, everyone would still be thinking about Katrina and its effect on the nation ever since.

If nothing else, the anniversary provides for more publicity. Sports Illustrated's latest issue does a stellar job of this - provided Louisianians can get past the cover photo of Nick Saban donning Alabama duds. One article, "Two Years After Katrina," shows pictures of Lawless High School, the public high school of the Ninth Ward. The pictures are of grass-engulfed basketball courts bereft of hoops; cracked and waterlogged football helmets lying near fences; and a gymnasium that looks more like a devastated swimming pool than a basketball venue. This is no photo retrospective; these are recent pictures. Proof that time can freeze in the worst ways.

Since the unfortunate events of 2005, New Orleans and outlying areas have faced an uphill reconstruction like no other. At the same time, incompetence at all levels of government and increasing public indifference have complicated the effort. Which is why I join the chorus of New Orleans bloggers who are taking this opportunity to say, "We Are Not OK."

Other thoughts of mine:
Why is New Orleans any different? (1/25/07)
Mardi Gras fear in Lafayette (2/28/06)
My reaction to 'Chocolate City' (1/19/06)
Listen to me talk about 2005 (12/31/05)
Ray Nagin comment hotbed (12/5/05)
Things no evacuee said (11/4/05)
Too soon to laugh? (10/4/05)
My evacuee diaries (9/4/05)
Post-Katrina dialogue, September 2005

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