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
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
There have been whispers from some politicians in
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
No matter what happens in the lower ninth, some of the people who were pushed out by the levee breaches will never return to
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.