Remembering Katrina

We know that warmer ocean temperatures resulting from the carbon build-up in the atmosphere have stacked the deck for more intense weather events. Hurricane Katrina was the deadliest and costliest storm in a season with 28 major storms and 15 hurricanes. Here is an article from 2005 discussing some of the scientific questions surrounding Katrina and global warming. More than a story about global warming, Hurricane Katrina is a story about a people left to die by their government before, during, and well-after a disaster most of us could never imagine.

One tangible thing that all of us can do right now to support these forgotten families is to sign and share the petition supporting the Gulf Coast Recovery Bill of 2007, which would support affordable housing and infrastructure recovery.

Katrina hit the Gulf Coast two years ago tomorrow killing more than 1,800, ravaging families and other residents with more than $80 billion in damage, and creating long-term refugees out of tens of thousands. More tragic than the storm itself is the despicable response offered by all levels of government in the aftermath. 30,000 families are scattered across the country in FEMA apartments, 13,000 are in trailers, and hardly any of the 77,000 rental units destroyed in New Orleans have been rebuilt. Last November my friend Jeca and I made the trip down to New Orleans to gut houses and help in the recovery effort. Below are two stories from my experience posted in my blog last year.

November 9, 2006 – Thursday

The Big Difficult

It’s been surreal living the past few days. I’m on the airplane now flying back to the Bay Area for some more uncertainty. New Orleans was a little bit like I thought it would be and a whole lot else. Tragic, musical, hopeful, confusing, beautiful, and heartbreaking. What I still don’t understand is how exactly it got that way. For now, I’ll tell a little about what I saw, who I met, and what I heard.

Jeca and I were tuckered after three days of gutting houses, taking cold showers, and exploring the city lights at nights so I spent the last days branching into other parts of the city. Every day in New Orleans was packed with stories that could affect your whole life. I can’t remember any other days when I’ve talked to four people who have told me four stories about losing everything they had in tandem with their family and their whole neighborhood. Nothing is the same. Still, there is more to the story than tragedy. Gotta remember that quote about not being able to be part of my revolution if you can’t shake booty. So, the nights had jukeboxes with James Brown, some shoddy pool playing, and loads of conversations about what brought each person to New Orleans to give some of their life to others. The whole thing was salty sweet with a splash of lemon.

There’s a lump in my throat I can’t get rid of no matter how many good memories I try to stir up. It’s a lump for a little girl who I heard about today on the shuttle ride to the airport. Darren works the front desk at Joe and Flo’s Candlelight hostel where I stayed on my last night in the city. When I first met him I thought he must be in his early 20s but it turns out he has a wife and three kids ages 8 through 10 so he could be 30. He’s a big guy with a life scarred baby face, dark brown skin, and a booming voice that kind of sounds like he’s yelling when you first hear it. Really, he just knows how to speak up and has a lot to say.

I rode in Darren’s van to the airport because it was as cheap as and simpler than taking the airport shuttle and he made a good pitch when I got there yesterday. The white mini-van made good time and I got one last chance to learn some more about New Orleans and the story of Katrina. It’s not something I’ll forget real soon. His daughter is 10 years old and really bright. Darren told me she used to be on the honor roll every year in school but now she’s getting high Cs and is in councelling. The hurricane did it to her.

Everyone I met in New Orleans had something inside to share about Katrina. They weren’t the kind of stories that were itching to be told. The stories hurt people. I asked Darren if he was in the Superdome during the storm. He was from Uptown, which isn’t far away and I had seen the images of thousands stranded there for days after the storm on the news and in magazines. “Yeah, I was there,” he said. “What was it like?” “Man, I wouldn’t wish that experience on my worst enemy.” This tale wasn’t pretty.

“I watched a woman raped right in front of my eyes. Man was standing behind her. It was awful. I had my family to take care of though. I had to protect them.”

“I saw a man shot in the face right in front of me because he had a case of water. People killed each other just to get water.”

Darren took his wife and kids out of the Superdome after one night. The roof was peeling off and rain started to come through so people were starting to worry the roof might come down on them. He talked to the guards outside and told them they would rather stay up on the highway. The Superdome was incredibly hot and dangerous. At least there was a breeze with all of the wind on the highway. They were out there for three days after the storm, two on the highway. Some were there four days.

The bugs ate them apart on the highway. There wasn’t anything they could do about it. Up there he saw a guy with a five gallon jug charging people two dollars to shit or piss in it. He would put a towel over them if they had to piss but there was no way to get privacy when you took a shit. Darren couldn’t believe the guy was making money out in that state. I kept thinking of the desperation and fear his kids must have felt watching all of this. In the water below they saw a dog eating a dead man and a child face down drowned.

Now his family drives between one and two and a half hours each way into New Orleans every day now because that’s where there FEMA trailer is parked. Because they never owned their land and their house in Uptown has since been demolished, they had to find relatives with land who would let them park it on their land. His kids don’t get much free time now with the commute.

“What about the insurance from your house?” I asked. He told me it still hasn’t come because the insurance companies are all suing the city and withholding settlements. They say the city blew the levees during the storm to spare the tourist Bourbon and Canal streets. That flooded the poor black neighborhoods. Later on more levees broke and the rich white communities got it too. In all, 85% of the city was under water. From what I saw and who I talked to, there were a lot of trailers and a lot of work being done 14 months later in the places close to the French Quarter and Uptown, but a fraction of it in places like the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish, where non-profits are trying to pick up the pieces that the government has left in stalemate.

Darren hasn’t seen his parents for 18 months. They’ve lost their house and are still in El Paso, Texas, where he can’t afford to visit. He dropped me at the Delta terminal at 11. I gave him a five dollar tip and he thanked me like it was a hundred. I guess part of the lump in my throat is there because it wasn’t a whole lot more. It’s not like he asked or even came close. I just keep thinking about his daughter. Darren says every time it rains now she cries. The saddest part is that it’s not the storm that created her nightmare. There’s a piece of all of us who failed that girl in New Orleans back on that highway. That hurts.

A hurricane is not a breeze

I gotta admit it. It’s eating me alive, so I have to confess. I am one of those punks who used to think hurricanes were cool. I was a little kid when Hurricane Andrew hit us in Massachusetts and remember itching like crazy to get out there and play in the wind. My enthusiasm only got stronger with the movie “Twister” as I watched a crew of scientists race precariously across the country with cows and lawn chairs flying everywhere.

I was wrong. Hurricanes are bad.

But there’s worse. A hurricane + a broken levee.

It was lunch time on our second day of house gutting when John decided to tell us a story. The day itself was actually quite sweet as we had an MP3 player with music, sunny warmness, and almost no bugs in the house. The story got me pretty sad though. We were sitting on the porch of the house we were gutting across the street from a big Middle School still in shatters from Katrina. A week or two ago John was gutting the house of a 75-year-old man who lived in the neighborhood and survived the storm on the top floor of that school more than a year earlier.

The old man had stayed up all night before the storm listening to the radio for updates on the water levels. He lived in the upper ninth ward, which has had hurricanes before with flooding and damage. Yesterday I had learned that even though Katrina was a category 5 hurricane, the damage from the storm itself wasn’t catastrophic. When the levees broke, a couple blocks of housing in the lower ninth ward were literally swept away and are now completely gone. 80% of the city was flooded during Katrina, which is quite an expanse if you see it in person. So, the man stayed up all night but fell asleep in the morning briefly before waking up with 2-3 feet of water in the streets. The first part of the levees had broken and he knew it was time to get to high ground. He went outside and saw an old lady relative of his in the streets wading through the water trying to get to the Middle School where people from the neighborhood had begun fleeing to. He rushed out into the street to help and made it to the chain link fence in front of the school when they heard a loud noise behind them. The second levee had broke and a huge wall of cruddy oily stinky no good filthy water was billowing toward them. It would have swept them away if it weren’t for the fence. They held on and somehow pulled themselves all the way up the fence to the door of the school amidst the rushing water (keep in mind the man was 75 and the lady was older). They tried to pry open the door but met up with resistence as the inside hadn’t fully flooded yet and the water pressure was too strong to open it. Luckily a cousin of theirs had spotted them in the street from inside the school and came downstairs to assist them. He found a fire hydrant and beat the door until the windows broke and the two of them were swept inside.

The man, the old lady, and the cousin made it up to the top floor of the Middle School and waited with everyone else, as the group signaled the Coast Guard for help on that first day. Unfortunately, there were dozens of people on their rooftops in more precarious situations than they were in, many of whom had axed through the ceiling to avoid the sky-high water. They ended up on the top floor of the school for three days before being rescued.

Tim from our group asked John how they got food and water if they were there for three days. He had wondered the same thing and asked the old man. He said “Thank God for the crackheads, they saved all of us.” The guys who he called crackheads, whom I assume were young men from the neighborhood involved with drugs and such, had organized to boat out in the flood to local shops to salvage food and water for the 70 people stranded in the school. He said they even kept the babies fed.

To me the saddest part of this story isn’t the hurricane, the stranded cats, the stinky toxic water, or even the fact that it took them three days to be rescued to dry ground. The saddest part of the story was being in their neighbors house today and seeing the inside of that school 13 months later. The man whose house we were gutting was a preacher. We found a big record collection, his preacher certifications, pictures, old televisions, and loads of his belongings that were all ruined by the water and the black mold that had taken over the home. Next door in this old shotgun home was the old man, actually living in the moldy wreckage with a bottle of soy sauce, a vase, and a few other things on the coffee table across from his couch. Who knows how much damage to his lungs and skin living there has done.

Half way through gutting the other side of his home, the floor in one of the rooms started to break through. There were three or four ugly weak spots in the house that broke into large holes when we went through. Even though John, our site leader, knew the house would probably have to be demolished, he kept us on the job. At the end he told us that there are benefits to gutting a house even if it’s down the tubes, highest of which is that it is a lot cheaper for the old man to pay for demolition if it’s gutted.

We are in these houses gutting as quick as we can with Common Ground because the city has given people strict deadlines for when they have to have their house gutted before they will be demolished. I can’t imagine how the preacher must feel now that he had survived the storm, waited 13 months to get his house gutted, had an ultimatim rather than help from the city with the situation, made friends with people at Common Ground and finally got this favor after living in a death trap next door for who knows how long, and will now probably face demolition anyway.

There are too many stories to tell. The 48-year-old local man at breakfast understandibly cynical about his neighbors hopes for the future, the salvage guys who bike, walk, or truck around the neighborhood looking for gutters so they can sift through the moldy scraps for appliances to sell for scrap, or other items that can be saved, the miles of houses, schools, churches, and vehicles around us that look like they haven’t been touched since Katrina, and the big easy nice lady’s jumbilaya we’re having for dinner tonight.


About Josh

Josh Lynch works to bring people together for clean energy and green jobs. As Co-Founder of Energy Action Coalition, he was instrumental in building a diverse youth-led alliance that has become a force in U.S. politics. Serving as Campaign Manager for Green For All in 2008, he coordinated Green Jobs Now, the first national day of action for green collar jobs. In 2009 he led the Green Recovery For All Initiative, empowering low-income people and people of color to leverage stimulus dollars for green collar jobs and training. Josh graduated from the College of Wooster with a major in Philosophy. He now lives and works in Boston.

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