Friday, July 13, 2007

Another Katrina Story

Several months ago I traveled to New Orleans for the annual HIV Prevention Leadership Summit, sponsored by a lot of great acronyms such as NAPWA, NMAC, CDC, and others. The host committee, mostly case workers and outreach workers for the New Orleans Department of Health, patiently reminded us over and over again about of the impact of the flooding related to Hurricane Katrina. Many of the New Orleanians who work in HIV prevention now live in FEMA trailers that the DOH and other providers of “essential” services managed to procure for them. It was the only way these agencies could ensure that enough staff would be able to return to New Orleans and their jobs to keep the agencies running.

On Monday afternoon (the first full day of the conference) the host committee sponsored a bus tour to the most damaged areas of the city. This kind of disaster tourism feels creepy to me, and initially I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. I was additionally turned off by the many people who said things like, “You just can’t imagine the devastation without seeing it firsthand. You just have to go see it.” Those of you who read my earlier post On Understanding Injustice have an inkling about how I respond to the assumption that the only way to understand a catastrophe is to experience it. To summarize, I think that this kind of logic has the potential to paralyze us with guilt and pain, and does not fully allow for the idea of allyship.

On top of all that, I was skeptical about the validity of the claim that I “couldn’t imagine” the affects of the hurricane, and more importantly, of the levee breaches. I have a damn vivid imagination. I was pretty sure I could imagine the devastation without seeing it.

I did end up going on the bus tour, and as it turned out we were both right. I did not see anything on the bus tour that I hadn’t imagined already, but I did gain some insight from the experience.

We started off in the French Quarter, which was the least damaged area of the city. Even there, most buildings are still marred by water lines, anywhere from a few inches to several feet above street level. These marks are permanent. Some building owners have tried painting over them, but the lines come back.

We continued through many neighborhoods where houses were more damaged. In these areas, every building was marked with spray-painted symbols indicating which teams of disaster workers had checked the building, when, and what was found. In houses where pets were found alive, the markings also indicate which animal shelter the rescuers evacuated them to. I found this sign particularly surreal: “2 cats DOA, 2 fish rescued.”

The houses in these neighborhoods are in various stages of repair. Some are sound enough to be occupied while they are rebuilt. Some have been gutted, and their owners are living in FEMA trailers in the driveway while they work on them. Others were gutted by teams of volunteers and have not been touched since, because the owners can’t afford to come back. A few are still filled to the ceiling with the ruined, rotting contents.

And then we got to the lower ninth ward, the hardest-hit part of the city. In parts of the lower ninth ward, the houses are just gone. It’s been almost two years now, so the multi-acre heaps of wreckage have been cleared away. What’s striking now is the emptiness. There’s just nothing, and no one, there. Blocks upon blocks of empty lots. Blocks upon blocks of addresses that people used to live at. When they come back, how do they even know which piece of weedy ground is theirs?

This was the point in the tour where I started to get emotional. It was painful to look at the devastation. And yet it was not unexpected. It was exactly as I had imagined it. And while people around me were saying things like, “Oh, my Lord,” “I can’t believe …,” and “Would you look at that!,” the whole scene felt oddly, eerily, distressingly familiar to me.

I had a sense of what the lower ninth might be like, not from news reports, but from my imagination. And I was able to imagine it with remarkable accuracy because I had some practice at imagining disasters. I have had to imagine such catastrophe to understand my own family history.

I have a great uncle who is a journalist. He was the youngest of three siblings, and the only one of them to be born in the U.S. In the early ‘70s, after completing a freelance assignment in Denmark, he took a detour to Poland to try to find the shtetl where his parents and siblings were born. When they had left, in 1929, the town had consisted of about 500 families, about 400 of them Jewish. In the version of the story that I picked up as a kid, my uncle returns to the village some half of a century later, to find 100 family homes and 400 empty lots.

Four hundred empty spaces where houses used to be. Four hundred foundations. Four hundred families dead or scattered. As a child, I worked hard to imagine this. Reflecting now, I wonder how many young Jews force ourselves to imagine catastrophe, with as much as details as we can muster. It is not just that we want to understand the events. To some extent we need to imagine these things, simply to be able to relate to our elders at all.

Now I’ve re-read my uncle’s written account of his visit and I know that the details I remembered were slightly off. It wasn’t 400 families, it was 450 out of 500. And he never precisely says that the houses were gone. Maybe they were left standing, empty, or occupied by gentiles. But it is true that there were no Jews there. That also is something I have made myself imagine: All the Jews are gone. My people are not there, now.

One time a (gentile) professor of religion with whom I was studying suggested that I ought to travel to Eastern Europe, to visit Auschwitz and Dachau. “Oh you just have to go, without going one simply can’t imagine …” You get the idea. Needless to say I did not take his advice. I understood without visiting what my professor, apparently, did not: I can imagine, and there is nothing to go back to. If I were to visit Poland or Ukraine, to try to find the places my family came from, I would come up empty-handed. My people are not there, now. The closest I could get to them would be a Holocaust tour.

Riding through New Orleans on a bus hired by the Health Department, because they wanted us to understand, I thought about those four hundred burned-out foundations I imagined as a child. Empty lots. My people are not there, now. And I thought of children all over the U.S. who are New Orleanians-in-exile. Looking back to New Orleans. Wondering if there’s anything to go back to.

There have been whispers from some politicians in New Orleans that it might be best to give up on the ninth ward, not to repopulate at all. They whisper that there might be a silver lining to this catastrophe, an opportunity to “clean up the city.” I get nervous when politicians want to “clean up” any place. It seems the dirt they’re looking to sweep out is always Brown. The lower-ninth ward was a predominantly, almost entirely, Black area. There were thriving Black-owned businesses and Black-led neighborhoods and schools. They aren’t there now. No businesses, no schools, no houses, no people. Just empty lots.

Officially, the whispers have not been heeded. Unofficially, there is no one in the lower ninth ward. Officially, people are allowed to move back. Unofficially, insurance companies won’t approve rebuilding plans, and FEMA won’t provide trailers, in those areas. After the khurvn, the Holocaust, there was no one left to move back. About 2/3 of the Jews of Europe had been murdered, and those who survived settled anywhere else, rather than return to a place so infused with loss and violence. Thank G-d this is a different situation. Right now there are still people eager to move back to New Orleans and rebuild. Officially, they’re encouraged. Unofficially, …

No matter what happens in the lower ninth, some of the people who were pushed out by the levee breaches will never return to New Orleans. They will settle in other cities, and some will raise children there. Those children will force themselves to imagine horrific emptiness, pets and people marked Dead On Arrival, real and immediate fear of drowning, neighborhoods that are gone. They will need to imagine these things, not only to understand their history, but also to be able to relate to their parents at all. They will want to come back and visit the place their families came from. And I want there to be something for them to come back to, besides Katrina tours. I don’t want a whole generation of Black New Orleanians-in-exile to grow up knowing, “My people aren’t there, now.”

If we need one more reason to rebuild, let it be this: Another generation does not need to grow up feeling like perpetual outsiders, like immigrants from a place that didn’t want them anyway to a place that doesn’t want to know them. Another generation does not have to grow up feeling the only way to know their culture is to know pain. This is a moment when we can fix something. It is not unimaginable that we would turn our backs – after all, we’ve done it before. But let’s not do it again.

1 comment:

Harriet the Spy - one of fiction's greatest observers said...

I appreciate the way you've managed to draw the correlation between the emptiness of Poland and the emptiness of the Lower 9th yet made note of the extreme differences between FEMA, the insurance companies and the politicians and the Nazis. I also like the "never again" sort of rhetoric at the end. It doesn't feel subtle to me, but I guess it's way more subtle than you could've written it.

One difference I've noticed is that Holocaust tourism often contains a strong Zionist agenda - a "they killed Jews here, and now Jews have a place to live and thrive in Israel" sort of message. Is there a comparable agenda with Katrina tours? Any agenda? Pure capitalism?

Anyway, thanks for writing again. Not that your panelspiel wasn't interesting, but it's nice to read an essay again.