viernes, diciembre 30, 2005

Josefa's House

The media shows images of the most photogenically and visibly devastated areas. But, its the mile after mile of middle and upper-class neighborhoods which, at first glance, look OK from the outside. After 2 weeks of 8-12 feet of floodwaters, all the furniture, appliances, personal belongings were ruined. The sheet-rock walls, insulation are soaked and covered with mildew. The wall studs are warped and need often need to be replaced. The flooring. The wiring. I could go on. We're talking about 250,000 homes. Some few residents from these neighborhoods have come back already. They are staying with friends and relatives. Very few FEMA trailers have been installed (Not in My Backyard sentiments and lack of electrical and plumbing services.) Also, it is not clear whether these houses will be re-insured and at what rates or if bank loans will be available. Also, it is not reassuring when the government states that it will only rebuild the levees to the pre-Katrina level.

So, when the Mennonites indicate that they will be here working for 2 years, that's not an exaggeration of the time involved.

Meanwhile, my immediate neighborhood wasn't flooded. There was wind damage and you see many houses with blue plastic nailed over roofs. My house is new and is all steel - bolted and welded so I had no wind problems. Happily, debris did not break my huge back window. My problems came from looters - who took less than my deductible but I still hope to get some help to restore my back door - where the breakin took place. The garden is a mess but my bougainvillea flourished. So, comparatively, I have very few problems. True, it is difficult to get help in fixing up. But, just a few minutes ago, I found a fellow who will help me weed the yard and, very expensively, I found someone who will mow 4 months of a supposed lawn.

About half of the businesses in the neighborhood have reopened. The big grocery stores that I go to have limited hours of service - few employees and few clients. It seems like the ethnic restaurants were quicker to return than others and there are lines to get in. But, when college students and professors return and when families with school children come back (very few New Orleans schools have reopened), the population will grow dramatically.

Last night, I spoke to a friend of mine. She's Bolivian, from the Yungas of La Paz, a region I visited for the first time last summer. She's a professor of Spanish at Loyola and her house was flooded. We worked on the first conference of the Bolivian Studies Association in her, once charming, dining room where she treated us to delicious Bolivian specialties. Some cousins are helping her fix up a small apartment in the back of her lot before she undertakes the reconstruction of her house. She sounded exhausted and devastated last night on the phone. I went by today and these two photographs show the level of flood water (note the two lines I superimposed on the image) and the gutted interior. It's overwhelming.

domingo, diciembre 25, 2005

Christmas Eve

The Post-Katrina Christmas, and all through the house...

The city decides on FEMA trailer sites and decides on the first houses to raze.

And I go for coffee at the Rue, as I have almost every day that I have been back. Last year, when they opened, I would bring a book or some homework. After Thanksgiving, before I had internet at home, I would drag my laptop to take advantage of free wireless and keep my eye out for a table with a plug but now it's just one of the only destinations available in my neighborhood.

Speaking of neighborhoods, I drove by my old house in Broadmoor, one of the lowest areas of the city. They had recently completed improving the drainage system and people felt more secure from big rains but it seems that a breach in the levee was the last thing that anybody had in mind.

My previous house is in the middle of the picture. The block was once lush with vegetation. Even though the house was raised over a service basement, the new owners had just installed a rental unit downstairs.
Around the corner, the dead leaves mark the level of the two weeks of floodwaters.

lunes, diciembre 19, 2005

At the Clinic

This morning I had a blood test at the Tulane Uptown Clinic. My Doctor was there in a polo shirt. Another doctor walked in in his scrubs. There was a sense of urgency - a woman was panicked - her daughter was bleeding - the clinic had become an emergency room, as well.

The nurse who draw my blood has been doing so for years. She lives on the West Bank in Plaquemine Parish and stayed with her family through Katrina. Happily she didn't "get water" (a common euphamism for flooding.) After a few days, Parish borders were closed and she and her family stayed behind. The National Guard sold them gasoline for their generator, they cooked and shared all the food in their freezer with their neighbors who did the same. Eventually they received supplies from the Red Cross. Her greatest complaint was the heat and the moquitos.

We all have so much to tell each other. The people that I talk to are the ones who have returned. We survived, one way or another. There are the tales of the evacuation - the hardships and adventures on the road. But, there are also stories of those who rode out the storm and were forced to leave by the police and Guardsmen. Franklin Adams, a former colleague from Tulane, talks about the groups of looters roving the neighborhood with shopping carts full of "electrodomesticos." I guess some of them were mine. Fearing lawlessness, he finally left town, as well.

domingo, diciembre 18, 2005

Sunday Coffee

I strolled over to Rue de la Course, one of two nearby coffee houses, this mild and sunny afternoon. Two professors from the Newcomb Art Department were sitting at an outside table, facing Carrollton Avenue. And so I joined them.

Sandy is a painter. Several years ago, she joined a class I led to the Yucatán. Her house in Gentilly was flooded and she lost some recent paintings which were in her ground floor studio. That was bad enough, but, what seemed to bother her most of all was that she lost her entire wardrobe - clothes that she had collected over many years.

Michael had evacuated to his family's home in Maine. He lives in this neighborhood, so his house and belongings were in good shape - although his roof was severly damaged and he can't find a contractor to fix it. Like me, there is the illusion that everything is more or less normal. On the otherhand, you talk to people who are living in two rooms of their much larger houses (a bedroom and bath) and know all the open restaurants while their kitchen is being rebuilt.

Last night, I went to a tree-trimming party a few blocks away from my house. The hosts and some of the guests had stayed in their houses through the hurricane. My neighborhood is on the natural levee, close to the Mississippi and on high ground. It was not flooded and only suffered from wind damage. They spoke of looters traveling through our neighborhood with shopping carts of stolen goods. They left more from fear of lawlessness than from the lack of power and potable water.

Bush announced aid to reconstruct the levees. Is this sufficient to reassure New Orleanians from the flooded city to return? Will families return when school opens in January? Will businesses and jobs return? When will we get a real sense of what kind of a New Orleans we need to construct?

miércoles, diciembre 14, 2005

More of the Same

I sit at my dining room table, looking out at the back yard. Right now, skies
are blue and it is sunny - but big rains are predicted this afternoon. But,
looking out it's as if nothing has happened these 3-1/2 months. I dread going
out in the city - there's a funny feeling about. People have no patience -
they drive more aggressively than usual. And, venturing out of this
neighborhood really brings on a depression which is palpable.

Will the government provide levee protection? Will neighborhoods rebuild? What
kind of city will New Orleans become? Was this hurricane just the culminating
step in a gradual fall from grace which has been going on for years?

I think we need to think about starting from scratch - forget about federal aid
and build a new city on the old - without levee protection - gradually growing
over the ruins of the old city - keeping whatever we can of what was valuable
before. So many of the flooded areas added population but did not really
contribute to the city's urban strength - I'm thinking of Lakeview, etc. and
hoping that the personal tragedies of the people who built there will be, at
least to a workable extent, compensated for (*), there can be a rebuilding but
not one that reproduces the block upon block of suburban sprawl. We will see.

martes, diciembre 13, 2005

New Orleans in limbo

We wait for someone to help us out
The levees are broken and the floods destroyed so much.
Just beyond my high and dry neighborhood there are houses of friends
which were destroyed and
further away,
there are blocks and blocks of once proud homes that are now ugly shells.

This was a city lushly overgrown,
now once lovely gardens and parks are grey and dead.

And no one seems to care - they look at us as unwanted beggars.
Tax breaks for the rich - enormous expenditures of future tax dollars abroad.


Face reality.

If we need to grow ourselves using our own resources - like colonists - that's also possible. But don't ask us for taxes.

We need housing urgently. Our citizens who want to come back but have no place to stay need shelter. And we need workers - to help grow the economy that we have - to help us rebuild. We need to identify property where construction will not flood and any investment will be also long-term. We need to get past legal and ownership hurdles.

We can then grow the city back away from the high-ground near the river - into the swamps - not depending on levee protection - not depending on pumping systems. We can take advantage of worthy existing structures and incorporate them. We need to incorporate utilities, sanitary services, public transportation as part of these new networks of expansion.