Sunday, November 26, 2006

Thanksgiving in New Orleans

From Po:

Michele and I took our children to New Orleans to visit with our family for the week. We stayed with our cousin Monique and our two godchildren in Slidell - they moved back into their house from their trailer two weeks age. Nobody is sure what to do with Aunt Lorraine. Her husband, "Uncle Brother," died right before the hurricane. Her house in Chalmette was flooded to the roof and she has neither received any insurance money to refurbish it, nor has the city even ruled whether houses in her neighborhood have to be rebuilt on stilts, elevated, in case of a future levee break. She gave much of her savings to her son Cousin Tommy who moved to Houston and used the money to fix up his new place. But she didn't like living with him and so she's back in Greater New Orleans. She stayed with Aunt Ronnie last week, but Aunt Ronnie's condo on the shore of Lake Ponchartrain was removed entirely by the storm surge. Ronnie lasted longer than anyone expected in her FEMA mansion on the slab of cement where her condo used to be, but now she's living in a cottage on a friend's farm, and having Aunt Lorraine in that little cottage is making her crazy. Cousin Pattie wants to take her in, but right now her family is living in a two-bedroom apartment while her home is rebuilt. So Lorraine is taking our spot at Cousin Monique's now that we've come back to San Francisco. But Monique is exhausted - she and her teen boys have been living in a 200 sq foot trailer in their yard for a year and a half, and they sure wouldn't mind having their own bedrooms again finally. On the whole, our family is doing great, considering that no insurer has paid out. We laugh together until midnight, and I especially love to be around people who knew my wife's father well, who can tell stories about him. (He died when Michele was 17.) But they'd be doing a lot better if the local governments didn't put everyone's life on hold. If we knew that Lorraine would never get paid, then we'd just buy her a condo or something. Everything's been up in the air for 16 months.

Let me give you a little visual tour.

Here is Monique's trailer in Slidell. Monique is an ICU nurse, and so she stayed and worked during the hurricane to guard her house. The water almost hit the roofline, but importantly it drained away in a couple days (unlike inside New Orleans, where it took over a week to pump out the water). The rest of the family (most of them) went to Jackson, Miss to stay with our cousin's. Our beloved Aunt Ronnie lived right on a spit overlooking Lake Ponchartrain. The storm surge left nothing behind but the slab of cement foundation under her home.

This picture (above) is looking westward to the Lake and I-10. It's so wiped clean that the photo op is gone. So here's a house further up the block, on that same spit. In this low resolution photo it might be hard to see, but there's a white car buried in the rubble.

You might have heard that the population of New Orleans is only 40% pre-hurricane. As low as that is, it still masks what's going on. It's more like that 3 out of 10 neighborhoods in New Orleans were only mildly affected (such as our Uncle Warren's place in Metarie, where they only had a few inches of flooding in their home); then 1 out of 10 neighborhoods has actually sprang back, (such as Cousin Monique's in Slidell); but 6 out of 10 neighborhoods/parishes are still ghosttowns. For instance, here's Aunt Lorraine's neighborhood in Chalmette:

Notice that there's no FEMA trailers or private trailers. About once every three blocks, you spot a trailer and someone fixing their house. It really is a ghost town; the devastation is not apparent, since the cities have cleaned up 90% of the rubbish. Grass is growing and the houses don't look that bad. This is Aunt Lorraine's house.

You almost can't tell that it's uninhabitable. Volunteers went in and stripped the sheetrock away down to the studs - so that the city wouldn't demolish it. Up and down the block, doors are open, windows are gone, but trees are green and it's dry and reasonably clean. This is true in places like the Ninth Ward, where the television cameras always go, but it's equally true in middle class areas like Chalmette or Arabi, and it's even true - this was a real surprise - in Lakeview, one of the nicer neighborhoods in New Orleans, off Canal Blvd north of I-10. Cousin Pattie is rebuilding her house there and hopes to have it completed in a couple months. But almost no other house around is being redone.

This is Aunt Lou's old house in Arabi. We all watched CNN right after the hurricane, and saw the first wave of government grossly failing its people. People were left on their rooftops for days. Levees broke. Busses promised for an evacuation took a week to get there. You saw it all. Neighborhoods to the north were guarded, so people couldn't come across the bridge.

The second wave of government failure is well underway, and I fear that without the photo-op this gross injustice will carry on silently. I do not know why Congress or our President has not done more to pressure the insurance companies to resolve the distinction between "wind damage" and "flood damage" and pay the insurance claims. Everyone in our family was given a couple thousand dollars right away, then not seen one cent since. Last June, the federal government sent $7.5 billion to fund The Road Home Program, which will give up to $150,000 to families to rebuild - less if they want to resettle elsewhere. 123,000 families should be eligible, and so far some 79,000 have applied (including everyone in my family). How many of those 79K have received checks so far? Only 39. Not 39-thousand. Just 39. I recognize this is a difficult administrative chore, and to avoid fraud every claim has to be carefully validated. But there seems to be no urgency, not in Louisiana government, not in our federal government. I can't understand why Congress has not held hearings to put pressure and help these families out.

At this point, I believe it will take a decade for many of these neighborhoods to be revived. That doesn't even make us sad anymore. Our family is plenty resilient and nobody was injured in the hurricane or trapped in an attic. This family is ready to move on and keep living, celebrating, telling stories, and messing our own lives up with traditional forms of dysfunction. This hurricane will be a great story some day. But I believe we're representative of at least 100,000 others, few of whom can put any of this behind them until insurance claims and relief claims get resolved.

None of this kept us from enjoying Thanksgiving. We argued over how to cook the turkey, and whether store-bought gravy would taste okay (it did), and we argued over politics and football and whether the white flight from New Orleans 35 years ago was a false panic and whether so-and-so was too young to marry and whose first marriage was the worst. We drank wine and howled in laughter until everyone practically fell asleep on the couch.