Life after Katrina

Western students have their eyes opened in New Orleans

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

A shredded house

Justine Giddens

STILL REBUILDING. Scenes like this are common in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward even now.

On Monday Aug. 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina, rated as a Category 4 storm, reached New Orleans, LA. Katrina, with 145-mph winds, was so powerful that it caused a 15-foot storm surge that overtook the pre-existing levee system.

Over 80 per cent of the city was flooded and the reported death toll was just over 1,000 people. U.S. President George W. Bush promised the victims of Katrina there would be extensive federal support and emergency assistance to help the survivors resume their lives.

Julie Goldstein, a third-year history student at Huron University College who traveled to New Orleans to rebuild houses mistakenly believed New Orleans was a thriving resurrected city.

“Before I went to New Orleans I thought volunteering was a nice thing to do, and at the same time thought that there was nothing left for us to contribute or help. Going down there it was a complete shock,” she said. “It is not sexy anymore to talk about New Orleans; it is completely off the radar.”

I was also under the same false impression when I went to New Orleans at the end of January.

As part of a group of five Western students, I joined the Hillel trip of Greater Toronto on a mission to build houses. I did not understand why the city still needed my help. It had been over two and a half years; had New Orleans not recovered?

On my first day in New Orleans I went on a city tour. The first phenomenon I noticed was the silence. I walked along the abandoned streets of the Lower Ninth Ward, which had been under 18 feet of water.

Instead of new developments, I walked for miles and miles in vacant fields. The only glimpses of previous life left in the remains werestaircases leading to nowhere and street signs.

“You could see that people had lived there. These were peoples’ homes. These had been peoples’ lives. I think the first reaction was one of shock and you kind of stood there gasping at the whole situation,” Lauren Rakowski, a fourth-year psychology and philosophy student, said.

There were thousands and thousands of dilapidated abandoned properties, wooden houses that were still marked by the destruction from the flood. Most noticeably, painted on each house a giant X that revealed the date and emergency team that examined it and the number of victims that were found dead inside.

The next day my fellow volunteers and I were sent to a site in an area of the Lower Ninth Ward called Holy Cross. We joined a volunteer team provided by the non-profit organization Rebuilding Together, which builds homes for the elderly and disabled.

Rebuilding Together has completed 69 houses in New Orleans and there are 36 houses still in progress.

“Without the volunteers we would not be here. Volunteers are like gold because they come ready to work and they spread the word to their friends and family at home,” Sean Vissar, volunteer coordinator for the New Orleans sector of Rebuilding Together, said.

Our job as volunteers for the first day was installing insulation.

“I tried to get over my fear of heights. Going on those rafters was probably the biggest hardship for me. I was moving so slowly. I forced myself to put up the insulation because I did not want it to be an easy experience. I wanted to recognize that it was not easy for the people of New Orleans,” Rakowski says.

A gutted house

Working on a construction site daunted Rakowski, but she said her lack of experience was not an issue.

“Even though they were big jobs we had the opportunity to do things that were accessible to us, but still made a huge difference. After a half an hour when you painted a whole room there was a sense of an immediate accomplishment. I guess being there and knowing that I had the potential to help these people and help put their lives together it did not seem so bad knowing that they had homes,” she said.

The house we were working on was being specifically built for Mrs. Gibbs, a neighbourhood legend.

She stayed during Hurricane Katrina and could not leave once the flooding began. One of her neighbours rescued her by boat. Mrs. Gibbs, like 114,000 other individuals, is currently living in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA bought 145,000 mobile homes for a total cost of $2.7 billion.

According to reports by Newsweek, the residents of these FEMA trailers have begun to report health problems ranging from nosebleeds and headaches to breathing difficulties.

On Feb. 14, U.S. officials announced there were potentially hazardous levels of toxic formaldehyde gas, a suspected carcinogen in the homes provided by FEMA.

Currently, over 38,000 families are living in the FEMA-provided trailers and being exposed to these toxic levels of emission.

Unfortunately, the tragedy in New Orleans has not diminished with the draining of the floodwaters. Instead the residents continue to face the emotional and physical burden of remaining in this forgotten city.

“[I] constantly go back and forth between extremely positive and extremely negative feelings. Sometimes it is really easy to focus on the fun " on the hospitality, the community of New Orleans,” said Megan Harms, the communications and marketing co-ordinator of the American Red Cross Southeast Louisiana branch.

“It is really exciting when there is a new business opening up, someone gets new plumbing for their house, another person moves in. And then you hear on the news about the FEMA trailer situation, and other people are not moving in, they are still waiting. At other times the situation is really dismal and frustrating.”

When I was in New Orleans, I asked residents why they returned and why they continue to stay.

Some told me they remained because there was nowhere else to go. Others believed the city would be rebuilt and they would be part of the legacy of renewal.

One contractor explained every day he is faced with the struggle between making a living and helping those who cannot afford to rebuild. He divulged how hard it is to help one person when everywhere he looks people are in need.

Vissar tried to explain what makes the community in New Orleans so resilient. “The community came on their own to help and responded without federal assistance.”

There are currently several initiatives that are being undertaken in New Orleans. Celebrities, including Brad Pitt, have gotten involved.

Pitt raised awareness of the ongoing disaster by placing temporary pink tents in the Lower Ninth Ward. He has launched a program called ‘Make it Right’ with the goal of replacing the tents with 150 actual homes that will cost $150,000 each.

However, the physical progress can be misleading.

“You can look at the buildings and see the physical progress and you can not always see what is going on inside of people,” Harms said. They think that they have to, or they choose to, appear that everything is okay,” Harms explained.

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