Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Shame of America: New Orleans

My father sent me this e-mail from a friend of his. It is an account of a recent trip to New Orleans, and it really opened my eyes. I mean, I knew things were bad; in fact, I knew things were REALLY bad. But to hear the way it is put in this letter... Jeez.

This is not an old letter... it was written in March of 2007... 19 months after Hurricane Katrina.

As the writer suggests, please forward this letter around. Folks need to know the gravity of the situation in New Orleans and the Gulf. I'll save the rant for another day (though you KNOW it's coming!).

I have edited slightly to retain anonymity for the writer and his family.

Dear Friends,

As most of you know we were recently in New Orleans. A friend emailed me and asked what it was like. I wrote back and then realized that I wanted to share it with all my friends because you need to know what the situation is. I have included the full text of the letter below.

If you care about this, PLEASE send this on to your friends. The more people who know, the better the chance that something good may yet happen.

It is certainly possible that all of the facts and figures set forth below are not 100% right on. I have not made an independent effort to verify what we were told. It certainly seemed accurate to me.

Thanks for your time. It is appreciated.


My wife’s sister died a few weeks ago in New Orleans and we had to go back for the funeral. It was 3 days after her 63rd birthday and, of course, she was the health nut. We had not wanted to go back after Katrina, but this time we had no choice.

What we saw and heard from family and friends was unbelievable. For all practical purposes, 19 months after the storm there has been NO progress.

Because of the funeral we saw and talked with literally hundreds of people. I have so many facts and figures it is mind-blowing.

I will preface this by saying that the tourist corridor is functioning fairly well. The French Quarter was essentially undamaged (except from looting and fires), and Uptown has been essentially restored. There are street signs and traffic lights where they should be. However, the rest of the City (and adjacent areas) are in serious trouble.

For instance, there are only 4 car dealerships left in N.O. There are more than that in San Luis Obispo.

They went from 7,000 restaurants to 2,000 restaurants.

89% of the home owners in Mississippi who applied for federal relief have received their checks. Less than 3% of the Louisiana homeowners have received their checks. Why the difference (you might say)? Miss. has Trent Lott as their senior Senator (and Republican Minority Leader and friend of Bush) and Haley Barbour is their Governor, who is the former Chairman of the Republican National Committee, both of whom are friends of Bush. By contrast, Louisiana has Kathleen Blanco as the governor and Ray Nagin as the mayor of N.O., both of whom are Democrats and both of whom are despised by Bush.

The soil is obviously contaminated, but NOBODY is doing a soil sample because they don’t want to know. So they are trying to rebuild on contaminated soil.

The rebuilding process is, at best, sad. Most of the homes that were flooded out are not being rebuilt. People have not yet gotten either their insurance money or their federal aid, so they can’t rebuild even if they wanted to. But for those that are trying to do it, they first remove the moldy carpet, then the drywall, then the insulation, then they spray the studs for mold, put in new insulation, new drywall and call it a day.

I believe that superficial effort will not kill the mold or prevent other cancer causing organisms from going in the studs, etc. But I am not a scientist and do not have the necessary technical knowledge to state that as a fact. However, I asked many people – including a realtor, 2 soon-to-be doctors and many other educated folks - if THEY would move into a house that had been mold-infested and “rebuilt” as I have described. Everyone said “no”.

In order to get flood insurance a house has to be 3 feet above sea level. But the level is different in different neighborhoods, and even sometimes on the same street. The only way to know if you are 3 feet above sea level is for the Corps of Engineers to make that determination. But that has not yet happened anywhere, because the understaffed Corps is working feverishly to rebuild the levees. There are two issues here:

1. The people who are rebuilding on their former slabs or at the former level are obviously not 3 feet above sea level. They will never qualify for flood insurance. Some are raising their houses, but nobody knows how high they have to go. So it is a desperate crap shoot: and

2. The Corps is rebuilding the levees to a Category 3 level because they don’t have enough money to rebuild to a Category 5 level. Katrina was a Category 5 hurricane.

There is no affordable housing so poor and low income people really have no place to llive. They cannot commute because the immediately adjacent parishes were effectively either wiped out or are not affordable. There is no mass transit of any kind. Most of the low income folks don’t have cars and, even if they did, they would have to travel so many miles from the City that they could not afford the gas.

There is no infrastructure to speak of. The streets have pot holes big enough to warrant folks putting garbage cans in them to warn drivers. There are no street signs on most streets (outside the Quarter and Uptown) and the City cannot replace them because they don’t have the money or the staff. The same goes for traffic signals, which are essentially not functioning except at the major intersections.

(LSU’s) University Hospital, which was a teaching hospital, is gone. Charity Hospital, which treated the poor and the uninsured – and was the premier Level 1 trauma center in the South – is also gone.

There is only one fully functioning hospital in the City, but it does not have a Level 1 trauma center (and New Orleans is now the #1 murder capital of the country – per capita. Interns are not coming to New Orleans and medical school graduates are leaving the area (for the first time ever). There is a critical shortage of every conceivable health care professional, including mental health folks – and the collective population is clinically depressed. The suicide rate is ridiculous.

We have a friend whose 39 year old daughter has MS. For the past few years she has been treated by a neurologist who was doing her some good and she was fully functioning. Her doctor lost his home, his medical building and his practice. Because of frustration and acute depression, he ultimately took a sleeping bag and climbed to the top of a high rise parking structure at Canal Place, zipped himself into the bag so he would not make a mess – and jumped off the building. She has not been able to replace him with another neurologist because there are not enough to go around.

FEMA is a national disgrace. As you probably know, they were not able to get their phones working properly – ever – and it was not possible to contact them by Internet. So everybody had to stand in line to fill out aid applications. The lines were very long and, if you did not get to the FEMA people by 4:00 p.m. , they closed the door at 4 and told everybody to come back tomorrow. (Wouldn’t you think that in an emergency of this magnitude they could function 24/7?) When you got back the next day – and stood in line all day again – hopefully you were lucky enough to get to the door before 4 and fill out the application.

It seems that most people were willing to wait about 6 weeks with no contact from FEMA – and then they tried to find out what was going on with their application. Well, you could not get through by phone or Internet, so back in line… When you finally made contact with a real person you were told that FEMA has no record of your application and that it was probably lost. So you had to start the process over again.

And, when they finally approved your application, then you were required to “register”. Guess what information they required on the “registration form”? You got it – the same info that they already had on the “application”. And guess what you had to do to register. You got it – stand in line again.

No wonder hundreds of thousands of people left. No wonder Michelle’s neurologist was so depressed he took his life. No wonder the murder rate is out of sight.

The schools – which were horrible before the storm - have almost no textbooks so 4-5 students in high school share a book during class as there are none to take home to study with.

The property tax base has collapsed (80% of the City was underwater for a long time), so the City has dramatically increased the property tax for those homes and businesses which survived. Every business that can leave has either left the City or is making plans to do so. As a result the sales tax base has completely collapsed.

Because of no affordable housing there is a critical labor shortage. McDonalds’s and Burger King are paying burger-flippers a $6,000 “signing bonus” for 1 year. The hotels are allocating 3-40% of their rooms to house staff (or else they would not have staff). The Hilton just paid a $10,000 signing bonus to a beverage manager together with a free room for a year. Help wanted signs are on every business.

Approximately 300,000 people have left the City, which is more than ½ the population. In answer to your question, they have a pretty good handle on the population now, and most agree it is about 250,000 (give or take). Imagine all those vacant housing units.

In adjacent St. Bernard Parish there were, as I recall, some 67, 000 homes and all 67,000 were underwater for a long time and are essentially uninhabitable. When we went there it was surreal. There are no cars, no people, no dogs or cats, often no birds, only abandoned homes and businesses. Sometimes, if we did not talk to each other and turned off the car engine, there were no sounds at all. I saw a gas station that showed a price of, as I recall, $1.49; I went to turn into the station and realized that it was abandoned. Imagine being in the center of your downtown and there was no sign of life and all the stores were abandoned. If you can imagine that, then you get it.

The vastness of the destruction is overwhelming. Between Katrina and Rita it hit an area of 90,000 sq. miles, larger than Great Britain. We did not get to Mississippi, but we were told that the Gulf Coast just does not exist. People would say things like “Remember Gulfport? Well, it’s gone. Just gone. The city does not exist.”

When my wife first called me to tell me her sister had died she said the funeral would not be for about 9 days. When I asked why the delay she told me that all of the funeral homes were damaged, some were destroyed, none were operating at capacity and the City simply could not process the dead as fast as they were dying. Who would have thought of that?

We have a cousin who is a Supervising Engineer for the Corps of Engineers. I asked him what it was like for him immediately after the levees broke. He said, “Pick a day.” I picked the second Tuesday, about 8 days after the flood. He reminded me that there was no power anywhere. They had been worrying about a cold storage warehouse which had 50,000,000 pounds of frozen chicken in it. (That is the correct number, 50,000,000 pounds.) Of course, when the power went out the chicken thawed and then spoiled. But they could not get to it because of the flood waters. When they finally got to it, on the second Tuesday, it was necessary to wear HazMat suits and use oxygen tanks to breath. They hauled it all out on 18 wheelers, took it to a rural area, dug a giant hole and buried it. (Want to guess what will happen to the soil and the water table where the chicken is buried?) Then they decontaminated the trucks, sent them back to the warehouse and started the process over again. (I could not imagine what size the warehouse was to hold that much chicken. He said it was “bigger than any store you have ever been in.”

We learned and saw so much that I could really go on and on with stories, facts, figures, and assorted sad stuff. But I think you get the idea.

The leadership at every single level of government failed the people before the storm, immediately after the storm – and even today. There is only one way to fix the myriad of problems and that is for the federal government to form a REGIONAL Redevelopment Agency, make the head a Cabinet-level position reporting directly to the President, and take all money and authority away from the inept and corrupt state and local politicians. But that is not going to happen with the current Administration, which is bogged down with other considerations. So the prognosis is not very good.

When we asked how we could help we got the same answer from everyone. “Send tourists” and “send volunteers to help”. There is no reason not to go to New Orleans as a tourist. It is still possible to have a good time in the French Quarter. I am working on the “volunteer” thing because I want to do SOMETHING personal and get my hands dirty. But I haven’t yet come to grips with the idea that if I help someone get back into a mold-infested house sitting on contaminated soil I have done them a service. So… more to come on that when I figure out how I want to help. Hopefully, that will be soon.

Love, R.

But even I have to ask, what really can be done given the reality of the violence in New Orleans?

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