Inspired to Care: Porch-time in Katrina’s path: The Ninth Ward six years later.
By: Jessica Dale, R.N., Adjunct Faculty, Medical Assisting Program at GU-Wausau
As some of you may know I recently took a trip to New Orleans. Many times the first thing that springs to mind when someone mentions New Orleans is Bourbon Street and a never ending Mardi Gras. If you are one of the lucky ones to have taken my classes (can you sense the attempt at humor here?) you know I’m a bit of a current event and news buff and for me one of the first things I thought about when planning our trip was Hurricane Katrina. I remember the news footage from August 2005 and the pain I felt watching and hearing of the loss of human life and the suffering that ensued. I figured after six years there would be not much left to see that would be reminiscent of this natural disaster, but felt the need as a fellow American to pay my respects to the almost 2,000 dead and thousands of more who suffered during this time. So on a sunny Friday we punched “lower ninth ward” into our GPS and took a short fifteen minute drive from our hotel to the banks of the Mississippi river.
I must admit as we approached I felt a little uneasy, as an outsider from a little town of 50,000 in Wisconsin I don’t make it a habit to drive around tough parts of town away from the safe lights of the city and hustle and bustle of the “safe zone”. I remember the stories on the media of crime, violence, and other horror stories, this feels like a far place from home. It didn’t matter; this is to me another ground zero, a place to pay respects, so we drove in. After six years……..we were shocked. There were a few homes, few and far between. Tattered, shattered windows or simply foundations remaining. When I say a few homes I mean one every block or every other block. The grass in most places had grown up past the roofs of what remained. In several places we saw just concrete front steps, steps that used to lead up to someone’s home, these hit the hardest. How many footsteps walked up and through the door after a long day’s work to say “Honey, I’m home”? How many children ran up these steps to throw their arms around a smiling grandmother waiting to hug her grandchildren? How many moms carried groceries up the steps to make dinner with their family? Now there are steps that lead to nowhere, an empty plot. The sides of road were littered with tree trunks and debris. Telephone poles leaned and tipped in unnatural positions with weeds almost touching the wire in some places. One word: desolate.
Then every so often a brand new home, big solar panels on the roof, bright colored paint: a stark contrast to the brown rusted gate that now stands alone on a plot– once fencing in a family home. I came to learn that the actor Brad Pitt has been slowly building homes here, we noticed about five. Five, five out of an entire neighborhood. Where was everyone else?
We were slowing driving around with our mouths open and we noticed two women on their porch. We felt an urge to stop, someone who can maybe make sense out of what we were seeing. We sat in the car deciding who should approach them, my fiancé said the obvious decision was me, I was a woman, I felt it should be him, being from Africa perhaps the two African- American women would be less offended than if I walked up on their porch and asked to talk to them. We decided it would be me when he said, “you’re nicer than me, you should go”. I agreed that part was true (my humor again) and got out of the car. How do you start this conversation? “Hi I’m from Wisconsin, can you tell me about how horrible Katrina was?” I decided to just be honest. I told them we were from Wisconsin and want to know if we could talk to the people who were affected by Katrina and get the human perspective first hand. The most wonderful older woman said, “Honey, why don’t you pull up a chair”.
The two women told us of how the water was up past the roofs. How they were lucky to get, they decided to leave before the 24 hour evacuation notice was given. Wait, 24 hours? Doesn’t the weather channel tell me my forecast a week in advance, warning me of extreme heat, cold, wind, or rain? Others were not so lucky. They told us, as bad as it looked and sounded on the news; in real life it was much, much worse. Nursing homes filling with water that were left filled with people. Hospitals with no power and the first floor filled with water that had bodies and over- run sewer water mixing with the debris. The smell lingers in their minds: of their loved ones, neighbors, and friends; the heat and humidity of a Louisiana summer, and of fear. The w0man told the story of her own niece who lived on a bridge with her children for four weeks without food and water, the same bridge where people trying to evacuate for help where shot and killed by the police. Another family member’s body found huddled in the kitchen with a note, starved saying she knew she was dying. Her husband died a month later of what they akin to a broken heart.
Houses jumped lots– your house, if it survived, had its foundation moved down the street. 20,000 plus people in the super dome with no food, water, sanitation, or air conditioning. Imagine putting a hundred strangers in your home and cutting all power and water. Not allowing for toilets to flush or food and water to come in, now imagine staying that way for a month. They told stories of elderly sitting in wheelchairs dead and children crying as their mothers were attacked by hoodlums in the dome.
The entire time we talked big chartered tour buses with the words “Katrina tour” in bright airbrushed letters drove by like clock- work every fifteen minutes. They told us they drive by every day all day. They had asked once what a tour through their neighborhood cost, forty dollars. Forty dollars to drive on a chartered air conditioned bus and survey their loss. I suddenly felt offended, how did these women not feel like their pain and loss was on display. I asked if any money from the tour went into rebuilding the community and then realized all I had to do was look around. They had been given some money to rebuild, but they had homeowners insurance and gotten out in time to come back. They also said 90% of the people in the neighborhood were homeowners as well, normal good hardworking Americans. Many, they said have never been found, and others if they can afford it, find it too painful to return.
I think of myself: I was a single mother at the time Katrina hit. If I had 24 hours to evacuate would I have been able to? If I was a lucky one to get to a gas station before gas ran out, could I have afforded it? That depends, as I reflect– living pay check to paycheck– if it was before payday I would not have been able to afford my ticket to safety. I still couldn’t believe it.
Last spring when we had a rough wind and rain storm that knocked over trees during the night, I was out of the house at seven a.m. There were city workers clearing trees, restoring power, and cleaning the street. Six years later the grass is still not cut in the ninth ward! I did not know that before Katrina hit the city had attempted to buy out the homes to build a casino, now the land is not so valuable. But home is home and the sense of loss remains none- the- less. It felt like a graveyard to me. We left with hugs and thank you’s. They were appreciative that someone cared to listen.
I told the two ladies who shared their story with me that I am like most Americans. We care– but just don’t know what to do or what needs to be done. Had I not gone and stopped I would assume that after this long the lawns are cut, homes are built, and lives are going back to normal. This trip affirmed a belief of mine: people and their stories are important. You never know how someone’s shoe pinches if you don’t put it on your own feet. When we drove away the few people we saw smiled and waved and we were thankful for our own lives and what we have, and thankful to them for sharing. Now we include the people of the ninth ward in our blessings at night.
~ Jessica Dale, R.N. is an Adjunct Faculty member and life-long lover of learning! You can contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org