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
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.