Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Quiet Before the Storm

A Red Cross shelter, before Gustav made landfall.

The city of New Orleans has been savaged by major hurricanes in recent years and this year has offered no reprieve. On the third anniversary of the devastating Hurricane Katrina, residents braced for Gustav. But how much better prepared was the city for the impending disaster? Bonita Silva reports.

It was the costliest, and fifth deadliest hurricane in the history of the United States of America. From it emerged incessant media coverage, an escalating missing persons list, and a succession of notorious political fumbles. It seemed only fitting then, that Hurricane Gustav would revisit New Orleans on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath.

Amongst Mayor Ray Nagin’s ‘doomsday predictions’, remained an assortment of unanswered questions: Was the city equipped to handle another catastrophe? Would the same political blame game be displayed for the world to see? Had the city made any feasible progress in the past three years?

Those questions would be answered as the city prepared for the recurring chaos, a devastating reminder of the lingering pain.

The city is quiet during its mandatory evacuation period. It is 3:15pm on Sunday, August 31, as Michael Homan sits at his computer, three hours until the City of New Orleans has a curfew imposed – from dusk until dawn.

Mayor Nagin’s website declares: “Those persons who remain within the City of New Orleans do so at their own risk and are subject to arrest if they are outside the boundaries of their own property.” New Orleans resident, Homan, braved the destruction of Katrina, and discounted the warnings of Gustav, refusing to comply with the mandatory evacuation.

More amazing still is that his wife and two kids evacuated while he stayed home with his two dogs: “That made it easier to stay also knowing they [my family] were in no danger,” said the 42-year-old Associate Professor of Theology.

Community groups believe Katrina survivors were anxious and eager to leave in the wake of Gustav, and that the evacuation imposed by its political leaders was a necessity.

The Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now (ACORN) was heavily involved in the rebuilding of the city post Katrina, particularly in regards to helping low income residents in the Lower 9th ward.

“Many who had weathered the storm of Katrina were some of the first to board busses out of town in anticipation of Gustav landing here,” Charles D. Jackson, Communications Director of ACORN said. “So there is some anxiety amongst survivors having to relive the same emotional trauma that they experienced during Hurricane Katrina.”

The Association has been pushing the Army Corps of Engineers to work quicker in fixing the levee system. The levees (the federal flood protection system) failed catastrophically during Katrina, where 80 per cent of the city became flooded. Residents such as Homan also say that the levees must be fixed.

“Nobody used to evacuate, and this is not a feasible solution to where we live. People can't afford to miss work for a week due to evacuating, and moreover pay hotels and restaurants to survive,” Homan explained.

The New Orleans Survivor Council was formed by survivors to come together on an equal basis. When asked how far the city had come since Hurricane Katrina, Organising Coordinator Kim Nunez says: “In certain parts of town it looks like Hurricane Katrina never happened, and other parts of town, it looks like they just cleared the water out two weeks ago…people don’t understand that Katrina is still a daily hindrance.”

As a resident, Richard Read, 40, evacuated during Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav. Although survivors have gone through a cycle of optimism and pessimism, “I think we're on a big upswing, psychologically speaking,” says Read. “We’ve come along surprisingly well – but again, that has little to do with government help, and more to do with the stick-to-itiveness of our residents.”

When asked the same question, Southern Regional Director for Amnesty International USA, Jared Feuer says, “No. New Orleans has not moved anywhere near far enough.”

Amnesty International USA has been campaigning on the housing rights of internally displaced people over the past two years. The United Nations created the 1998 document ‘Guiding Principles for Internally Displaced Persons’. Twice as many people have been displaced in Gustav – two million – compared to Katrina’s one million.

“With the internally displaced, you have a situation where there are people who are still within the borders of the government that often created the situation leading to their very displacement, and as a result they often are in a hostile situation,” says Feuer. “They’re hostile at worst, often just neglectful at best, and as a result they don’t have access to… all the rights that are specified in the guiding principles.”

Feuer says at least the political rhetoric right now suggests a different approach to before.

The American Red Cross has 334 shelters open across eight states to house residents evacuated in areas hit by Gustav. “The organisation and collaboration between the non profit organisations such as the Red Cross and the government was much more coordinated,” says Jennifer Lubrani, Spokesperson for the American Red Cross. “There were already airplanes to transport people that could not get out of the city on their own. That had not happened in Katrina, and it did happen with Gustav.”

Jackson of ACORN also says there has been a vast difference in the handling of the situation, in keeping the public informed and providing transportation out of the city: “Apparently they learned from Hurricane Katrina and have taken measures to prevent such a catastrophe again.”

Jared Feuer says the problem with Katrina was that the city, state, and federal government were passing the blame to each other.

But resident Read believes Mayor Nagin continues to fail the city during Gustav: “My biggest problem is that Nagin doesn’t communicate with the public at all… We almost never hear from him, or from the man who’s meant to be overseeing New Orleans’ recovery, Dr. Ed Blakely,” he says. “That’s endlessly frustrating in a city where there’s still a lot to be done.”

Yet the city wasn’t hit as hard, and was under better political management during Hurricane Gustav, meaning groups are concerned about where that leaves New Orleans.

Amnesty is concerned about what can be expected: “Because Katrina was such an immediate disaster, it remained in the public eye. Our concern with Gustav is that because the flooding was less, the public is going to turn their attention,” explains Feuer.

“I think the storm has the great potential to highlight that New Orleans isn’t whole, that New Orleans still needs help, and if it’s used as that, I think it could be very powerful,” says Nunez of the New Orleans Survivor Council.

But in a city not yet whole, a mandatory evacuation in place, and now the Hurricane Ike blitzing through, what does it feel like with a city curfew intact? “Nobody pays attention to the curfew,” says New Orleans resident Homan.

Photo: Kati Garner/American Red Cross

1 comment:

Annette Lin said...

Did you call those people up? Wow... love some of the writing!