Friday, September 09, 2005

Katrina stories

As a college student I was involved with Alternative Spring Break. I organized a volunteer trip to New Orleans for a week in the late 1990's. One of the things we were taught by the people we came to help was that they were not just a project to be fixed (especially in a week by college students!) but that they were people, with lives and stories of their own, who would be struggling on long after we were gone. That we got more from them, learned more from them, than we could possibly give back.

This is probably the cheezy bleeding heart liberal coming out in me, but after witnessing the endless reports of how badly people in need were treated (stories of water being lobbed at them off of trucks as if they were animals - when it finally came) I feel like maybe one way to heal some of the pain and humilation the victims must be feeling would be to collect these stories, to listen. To give back some dignity to people who lost everything they had then were punished and demonized.

This isn't art related but as a writer I'm interested in narratives, in the telling of stories. And this is the clearest personal story I've read from the people caught in New Orleans after the flood.

From a narrative by two members of the Paramedic Chapter of SEIU Local 790, in the city for a conference. Via NEWSgrist. These two mention being turned away from walking out of the city, as reported on FoxNews. Unlike the cable news, in this story the reason seems clear:
We questioned why we couldn't cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the 6-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans and there would be no Superdomes in their City. These were code words for if you are poor and black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River and you were not getting out of New Orleans.
More from the same story:
Our little encampment began to blossom. Someone stole a water delivery truck and brought it up to us. Let's hear it for looting! A mile or so down the freeway, an army truck lost a couple of pallets of C-rations on a tight turn. We ferried the food back to our camp in shopping carts. Now secure with the two necessities, food and water; cooperation, community, and creativity flowered. We organized a clean up and hung garbage bags from the rebar poles. We made beds from wood pallets and cardboard. We designated a storm drain as the bathroom and the kids built an elaborate enclosure for privacy out of plastic, broken umbrellas, and other scraps. We even organized a food recycling system where individuals could swap out parts of C-rations (applesauce for babies and candies for kids!).

This was a process we saw repeatedly in the aftermath of Katrina. When individuals had to fight to find food or water, it meant looking out for yourself only. You had to do whatever it took to find water for your kids or food for your parents. When these basic needs were met, people began to look out for each other, working together and constructing a community.

If the relief organizations had saturated the City with food and water in the first 2 or 3 days, the desperation, the frustration and the ugliness would not have set in.

Flush with the necessities, we offered food and water to passing families and individuals. Many decided to stay and join us. Our encampment grew to 80 or 90 people.

From a woman with a battery powered radio we learned that the media was talking about us. Up in full view on the freeway, every relief and news organizations saw us on their way into the City. Officials were being asked what they were going to do about all those families living up on the freeway? The officials responded they were going to take care of us. Some of us got a sinking feeling. "Taking care of us" had an ominous tone to it.

Unfortunately, our sinking feeling (along with the sinking City) was correct. Just as dusk set in, a Gretna Sheriff showed up, jumped out of his patrol vehicle, aimed his gun at our faces, screaming, "Get off the fucking freeway". A helicopter arrived and used the wind from its blades to blow away our flimsy structures. As we retreated, the sheriff loaded up his truck with our food and water.


At 3:19 PM, Blogger Amy said...

This story has since been picked up by the NYT. See Police in Suburbs Blocked Evacuees.

Again, thanks to Bat Guano, who collects these things like bad pennies.


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