New Orleans, One Year Later
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"I want as many people to come visit here as possible," a Lower Ninth Ward resident told me as we walked past the infamous breached levees and destroyed homes of his neighborhood. "The national media has forgotten us, the politicians in D.C. have forgotten us. I support anything to get the word out."
Among the people of New Orleans, this sentiment is common -- the country has moved on, and if people would just come here and see, maybe they'll bring attention and consciousness.
Beginning days after the storm, New Orleans hosted a stream of celebrities and political players, from Sean Penn to the United Nations Human Rights envoy, and a series of PR visits from President Bush. Later, Women of the Storm, a nonpartisan group led mostly by wealthy white women from New Orleans, raised a lot of cash and publicity for their mission to fly to D.C. and convince congressional representatives to come here and view the devastation.
Driving through the Lower Ninth Ward on any given day, there are scattered groups on guided or unguided tours with visitors on buses surveying the devastation, church volunteers in vans or scruffy activists on bikes. People come to see the levee break -- now mostly rebuilt -- and to view the general devastation, which is still very much present.
Until recently, bodies were still being discovered regularly. Most residents of the Lower Ninth Ward have not been able to return. Much of the neighborhood still has no electricity or running water.
How do you commemorate the anniversary of something that is still happening? The devastation of our city is not just something that happened a year ago, it's something that was going on yesterday, continues today and will go on tomorrow.
Half of the people of New Orleans remain dispersed around the United States. Suicide rates have tripled. The National Guard is still patrolling the streets. Most schools and hospitals -- especially those serving poor people -- are still closed. Central issues related to the planning of the city -- including what neighborhoods will be rebuilt, how they will be rebuilt and who will make the decisions -- remain unresolved. Perhaps most importantly, few people here feel protected by the partially fixed levees that surround New Orleans.
To commemorate the one-year anniversary, Mayor Nagin's administration initially announced a party -- fireworks at the superdome, a masquerade and a comedy show at the downtown casino. Although those plans were widely seen as offensive -- and have since been cancelled -- for many, an unsettled feeling lingers.
The anniversary will probably bring one last deluge of media attention, but after that the spotlight will most likely move on. "It was frustrating and painful at first," says former mayoral candidate and Lower Ninth Ward resident Greta Gladney, referring to the short-lived attention of the media, volunteers and donors.
"Before December, in order to see our own neighborhood, we had to ride on a tour bus, while contractors, insurance adjusters, journalists, and police and soldiers could walk around here as much as they wanted," Gladney adds. "Politicians were using our neighborhood for leverage, to get more money from the federal government. But they don't want the Lower Ninth to be rebuilt, so the money they get from our suffering is not going to come to us."
The slow, painful and uneven return of New Orleans has at least one hopeful sign: a wave of continued community activism. Grassroots organizers have organized alternate plans for the anniversary today, including vigils, press conferences, a tour of public housing that continues to be neglected, and a memorial and a march. The march -- organized by a coalition called the United Front to Commemorate the Great Flood -- will begin today in the Lower Ninth Ward. Whatever happens in these coming weeks and months, for the people of New Orleans, the struggle -- and the mourning -- continues, with or without the attention of the world.
Resources for relief action in the Gulf Coast:
New Orleans Network is focusing on reconnecting New Orleans' diaspora and rebuilding community.
Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children works to provide shelter for kids and is active in the long-term reconstruction efforts.
Common Ground Collective focuses mainly on relief in the Algiers neighborhood, on New Orleans' West Bank.
For more Katrina-related news, resources and viewpoints, check out KatrinaAction.org.