Saturday, September 6, 2008

'Playing Russian Roulette': How One New Orleanian Copes With the Threat of Hurricanes

Written By: Traci, or is it Jill...Whatever.

I’ve lived in and around New Orleans for 7 years now, and I've got a deep love-hate relationship with the city that I think is common of most New Orleanians. Yes, I think of myself as a New Orleanian. I teach 4th grade and work with other teachers on staff development in a local parish.

To me, New Orleans is completely unique. All at once, it embodies France, Spain, America, and a third world country. It holds a deep history and an overwhelming culture. Still, there's always a sadness that permeates even the biggest of celebrations. This celebration of the macabre and life in its entirety within New Orleans makes it very difficult for me to feel comfortable in any other city or environment.

New Orleans reminds me of that dysfunctional child with whom you get frustrated for not making good decisions or being like other children. But another part of me loves that child even more because of the difficulties they face, especially when I understand that they need more than a "normal" child.

During Hurricane Katrina, I evacuated to Florida with my dogs, while my husband had to stay behind to work in a local hospital. I spent the next 7 days glued to the television in disbelief of what was happening in my city. When I first moved there, I heard that the levees would not hold in the event of a major hurricane. I couldn’t believe that this was a known problem and nothing had been done. Surely, we had the ability in the 21st Century to repair levees so that they would hold?

Apparently, the city and state had sought funding to strengthen the levees but were repeatedly denied the funding. Ironically, our state received no profits from the oil companies that drilled off our coast. Many scientists have argued that this same drilling contributed to the destruction of the wetlands and barrier islands surrounding us that would have protected us from hurricanes like Katrina. Texas and Alaska receive large profits from the oil drilling that occurs off of their shores, but I digress.

When I left, I had taken comfort in the thought that FEMA, the Red Cross, and many other organizations were stationed right outside the city, and stood ready to aid as soon as the storm passed. To them, I guess, "soon" meant about 7 days. I lost tremendous belief in our government as I watched our city swirl in despair. This wasn't an unpredictable earthquake or a surprise terrorist attack. Hurricane Katrina was an event everyone knew was coming and the possible repercussions of it were known well in advance, too.

I also lost the hope and comfort that are the rights of every U.S citizen. I arrogantly believed that our country would save us from any peril that could strike. That we were rich enough, strong enough, and certainly capable enough to conquer the worst of disasters. A predictable category II hurricane took those beliefs away from me. I will never understand how we could be in Thailand after a tsunami within less than 24 hours whereas it took five days for our National Guard to arrive in New Orleans. Nor can I understand how Canada’s National Guard managed to arrive in St. Bernard for hospital evacuations several days before our own guard arrived in the city.

I’ve come to accept that living in New Orleans means that evacuation can and will be a part of my life. I know many people that lost everything they own and I’m okay with losing all of the possessions that I deem not worthy enough to fit into my car. I’m not okay, though, with leaving the lives of people that I love in the hands of the federal, state, and local government.

I was in a busy fog and not relating Gustav to Katrina until a fellow teacher gave me a big hug on our last school day before the storm. That's when it hit hard. I remembered the many people and students I never saw again after Katrina. A deep panic set in for my students.

As they left, I tried to tell them everything would be fine, I loved them, I’d see them on Tuesday and they’d better know their times tables. I guess that’s my way of instilling a sense of normalcy in my children that I think they needed. As we waited for the storm, I feared for people I knew that talked about staying. I feared for the children that have to rely on their parent’s judgment for safety.

There is no question that Gustav has been handled better, and I’m very happy to see we have learned from our mistakes. Our current governor, Bobby Jindal, did an amazing job orchestrating a major evacuation. I disagree with many of his policies, but can't deny that he's extremely intelligent and a great leader. Although I think it was as stupid mistake on McCain's part, I’m happy he overlooked Jindal as Vice President. This way, we can keep him a little longer. Our local leaders had detailed plans in place and acted swiftly and calmly, too. Mayor Nagin was able to salvage some of his reputation, and at least this time President Bush looked concerned bunkered down in Texas instead of flying off to San Diego as he did last time.

I felt a million times better in how it was handled this time. I contribute a large part of the success to our state governor. He was very proactive. Still, the threat looms. Three years later, our levees remain at “Pre-Katrina” levels which means a Katrina type storm could still take us out. To me, God has given us plenty of time to get our act together, but our city remains threatened by the day it will sit in ten feet of water. I think a lot of the rest of the nation are tired of hearing about us. A part of me can understand their perspective, as unenlightened as it may be.

My biggest problem is the levees that still aren’t up to standard. Gustav lost strength, so the outcome turned out well. What about the next hurricane, though? The levees are built by the Army Corp of Engineers and most of that money comes from the federal government. And, frankly, I have a problem with them. Once our levees are built up to standard, then we won’t need any more "support."

At this point, I continue to feel like we're playing Russian roulette every time a hurricane comes close to us.

** As of the posting of this entry, Hurricane Ike, a category II with 105 mph winds is headed towards the Gulf of Mexico.

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Blogger Avitable said...

After seeing the devastation caused by Katrina, I really thought that New Orleans was going to become a ghost town. I'm still surprised it hasn't because of the problems with the city being below sea level and still not having sufficient protection from storms. I don't think I could live there.

Monday, 08 September, 2008  
Blogger Komal said...

New Orleans, as a city is one of a kind. I can see why you're so attached. I've only been there once or twice, but there wasn't a second where I wasn't fascinated by something. I thinks its still why I'm considering the city for the college (I'll most likely stay in texas, but out of state lately seems very appealing...). I'm just glad you guys are safe and back. On my own I think I wouldn't mind living there with the risk. But when comes to family living there, I do get quite anxious and worried. Its important to me that you guys are always safe from that type of stuff. Good post.

Monday, 08 September, 2008  
Blogger Tariq said...

Being from a country whose history can be traced back thousands of years, I always 'believed' that there just wasn't enough when it came to history in America. That is until I visited New Orleans. Jill points out perfectly when she says that this city offers(ed)? a blend of Europe's dominant cultures, African cultures, and the rest of the third world. I remember calling FEMA, LIMA, KEEMA, and whatever other organization I could get my hands on during hurricane Katrina to find the whereabouts of my brother-in-law. The feeling of helplessness that came upon us during that week is not something I expected to face in the United States of America. In any case, I believe that everybody (every nation in this case) deserves a second chance. With Gustav that chance was given and as Jill pointed out, the administration re-acted as per expectations. I hope that they continually improve with every opportunity that comes their way.

Monday, 08 September, 2008  
Blogger Faiqa said...

Traci/Jill, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and feelings about living through such "perilous" times.

As an American and serious student of history, I have always felt that New Orleans is America's crown jewel in terms of culture.

Whenever I see a hurricane forming in the Atlantic, I always pray it'll come here instead. I can live without Disney World, but never eating drinking a cup of coffee and eating a beignet at Cafe Du Monde again presents a reality that I am not prepared to face.

Monday, 08 September, 2008  
Anonymous Traci said...

To Avitable: I don't think I have it in me to stay here my whole life either. I never realized people could be so tied to a place like they are here. There is certainly a group of people that will never leave here and will stay, come hell or high water.

To Komal: You would love living in New Orleans and we would love to have you stay with us. Mi casa su casa

To Tariq: Thanks for trying. I forgot how irratating it was trying to reach anybody that had any type of answer. I'm also glad you mentioned Africa. There is a strong African presence here as well. Speaking of which, remind me to take ya'll to Benechins next time your here. It's one of my favorite restaurants. We should also do Commanders for lunch.

To Faiqa: I couldn't agree more, New Orleans is our crown jewel. It is going to have to adapt to a new reality, but I hope it can do so while still maintaining its amazing culture.

Monday, 08 September, 2008  

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