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 The News: Dispatches From the Other America, Parts I-III

TravelBy Charles E. Anderson
t r u t h o u t | Guest Contributor

The French Quarter bustles with hundreds of tanned tourists clad in Bermuda shorts, flip-flops and T-shirts bearing pithy slogans. They crowd in around tour guides who tell tall tales of the distant past - tales of Voodoo queens and illicit madams, stories of hard lives and cruel deaths. They rush to get on buses to tour the grand mansions and manicured lawns the of famed Garden District of New Orleans. They drink strong coffee and eat beignets at the Café Dumond; dine in the French Quarter's famous five-star restaurants and drink at the many bars along Bourbon Street. Greenbacks flow from worn leather wallets into the cash registers of the tourist district, seemingly faster than the mind can conceive. Farther downtown, a gas station turns a brisk business selling gasoline, snacks and cold drinks to hundreds of residents and visitors alike. Traffic is heavy on this thoroughfare that dissects one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, the 9th Ward. The sidewalks here are full with foot traffic. Residents go about their daily tasks of gutting homes and businesses, seeming to continue with their lives. Taking this in, it is almost easy for me to believe what I have been told: New Orleans is recovering well from Hurricane Katrina, and the city is on the road to recovery. But, this is New Orleans and the Crescent City is known for its facades.

It takes only two left turns off the major travel routes to discover the New Orleans I had hoped did not exist. It is the New Orleans the state and city governments do not want you to see. Houses lifted from their foundations by the floodwaters that inundated the city two years ago still sit as dilapidated piles of rubble; occasional FEMA trailers dot an otherwise barren landscape devoid of functioning businesses or inhabitable homes. The stench of mildew, mold and rotting garbage permeates the area. This view of "the other New Orleans" is haunting, like a graveyard of the living. ...

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Schools, once filled with the jubilant voices of youth, now sit silent and empty as though bearing silent witness to innocence lost; churches sit boarded and vacant, seeming to proclaim, "God doesn't live here anymore," and dozens of corner stores, bars and barber shops sit dormant, as if waiting for their hard-working owners to return and pick up where they left off August 28, 2005: the day before the storm. Yet, this empty view of the city is no more accurate than the image so carefully constructed by the city's Visitor's Bureau. The truth about New Orleans is somewhere between the cleaned-up, shiny image of the uptown districts and the nearly ghost town aura of the 9th Ward.

Somewhere in this haunted ghost town, I discovered a resilience of the human spirit I have never seen before. Signs proclaiming, "I'm coming home; I will rebuild; I am New Orleans" can be seen hanging in front windows and posted in the front yards of the iconic Louisiana shotgun-style houses. Lifelong residents struggle to gut their family homes, often without help. A new generation of New Orleanians, proud of their heritage, work long hours during the week only to work longer hours repairing their damaged homes on weekends. Children still play here and adults still congregate together on their front porches to talk about the hard times and to hope for a better future. Hundreds of caring souls from around the country work tirelessly to do what they can to help people they have never met. The story of this working-class district seems to cry out from its dilapidated buildings and vacant persona. Local residents yearn to tell their story and freely talk about the ordeal they have endured for the past two years as they suffered in silence.

Before I arrived in Louisiana, I had prepared myself to witness the destruction wrought by the hurricane, as well as the waste wrought by inept government. I was not, however, prepared to witness the abject suffering of the hurricane victims, nor was I prepared to experience the strength of faith and the resolve of character so steadfastly personified by these survivors. I had the pleasure of meeting elderly residents of the 9th Ward, many of whom have been working on their homes with no assistance; I met volunteers, motivated only by the desire to relieve human suffering, whose work has aided many, and I met a community "at the bottom of the world" in southern Louisiana where the locals are determined to rebuild their community. My eight days in Louisiana provided me with a view of the "other America" where resources are scarce; faith and will power are essential for survival, and in fact prove to be the heart of our national identity.

It's a story of incredible suffering, amazing faith and strong characters. It is the story of hurricane survivors, not hurricane victims. It is a story of a culture that is clinging to survival in the wake of powerful hurricanes and feeble governments. It is a story of the best, and the worst, of the American spirit.


Part II: Dispatches From the Other America

Robert Jackson's house looks like a skeleton. Yellow joists stand out like pale exposed ribs against a background of his neighbor's dingy white and grey house. "I want you to move here," the 34-year-old general contractor says with a lopsided grin. "New Orleans is a great place to live!"

Jackson is one of the many younger New Orleanians who are determined to come back home. He works long hours remodeling homes for other New Orleanians during the week, and on weekends he restores his own home.

Jackson's story is familiar, if not typical. His family did not have flood insurance, so he had to save the money to rebuild. As he worked to get his family back into their home, a task he hopes to achieve soon, they lived in a FEMA trailer too small for the family's needs. Jackson is not merely rebuilding his own home, but his parents' home as well. A half block away, Christine Green sits on the front porch of her hot pink house, chatting with her neighbor Patrick Price. Green is almost finished restoring her home. The wiring is fixed, drywall hung and windows replaced. All that remains is to install new flooring and hang new cabinets. But Green's insurance money has been spent. She is now waiting for the federal Road Home Program to provide her with financial assistance. But that program has been plagued with problems, and it is likely that many of those in need will continue to wait indefinitely.

Like many New Orleans residents, Green, a 53-year-old housekeeping manager, fled to Houston during the storm. The house, which has been in the family for over thirty years, is important to Green and her siblings. All of them were surprised to learn that the house had survived the storm with little structural damage. "This is a strong house," she says with a booming voice, her brilliant white teeth shining in contrast to her ebony skin. "My mother and daddy worked too hard for this house! How could I leave it and go somewhere else?" she asks.

A tour of the neighborhood reveals many dilapidated homes, a few FEMA trailers, and then, about once per block, a home completely remodeled, usually with a new car in the driveway.

There is a temptation to try to classify this phenomenon in relation to 9th Ward geography. To think, for example, the homes by the levee are totally destroyed, but up by Claiborne, the homes are okay. But reality is that resources, not geography, determine a neighborhood's resurrection.

Elderly Are Hit Particularly Hard

Melvina Gains and her poodle Jazzy live in a small FEMA trailer instead of in the double shotgun home she owns just blocks from the once-ruptured levee. They have few neighbors and have been robbed several times. In fact, Gains was victimized twice in one week, and the second time the burglars stole the .38 caliber pistol she kept for self-defense.

Gains, a 74-year-old former housing counselor, has a lot on her mind these days. In March, she paid a housing contractor $22,000 to restore her home. Now, months later, little work has been done. "It's like I take one step forward and two steps back," she says.

Yet, there is hope. Volunteers from Plenty International have begun restoring the home in hopes that she can move back in within months.

Less than a block away, Richard Green, 81, sits on the front porch of his nondescript double shotgun house. Green worked hard for years to afford the house that he and his wife have shared for nearly forty years. Now, little is left of the dream he and his family once shared. The home has been gutted by volunteers. However, Green has not been able to restore the home.

The smell of mildew still permeates the small house. Electricity and water are functioning. However, little else has been done. The walls are mere studs; no drywall hangs to create rooms. The floors are little more than sheets of plywood. Few worldly possessions decorate the house. What the Greens had was washed away by the flood.

Like many residents, the Greens have had difficulty navigating the complex support programs created by the local, state and federal governments. They have had difficulty getting a handicap-accessible FEMA trailer or getting assistance from the Road Home Program. In fact, since they do not own a car, just getting to places where the services are offered is difficult.

Yet, despite all of their hardships, the Greens still embody the survivor's spirit that is so prevalent in the 9th Ward. Next to their front door that reads, "Lord, help me hang in there."

A few blocks away, Cephus Lewis admits that sometimes he and his wife are scared to stay in the trailer loaned to them by FEMA. Most of his neighbors have opted not to move back to the neighborhood. At night, his corner of the 9th Ward appears to be abandoned. Yet, the area is still deserving of the rough and tumble reputation it once had. After dark, gangs have been seen in the area, and occasionally gunshots ring out. Yet, Lewis and his wife are determined to return to their home. When the stress of life in the 9th seems too much, the Lewises turn to the same place many residents do: their faith. "When we get scared, we just get down on the floor and pray. No one is going to run us out of here," he says.

Across the street from the sign that reads "Welcome to Desire," one of the 9th Ward's more vacant neighborhoods, sits George Elphage's home. Elphage leans to the left as he perches on a cane in his front yard. With a strong, sweeping motion that defies his 83 years, he swings the claw of a hammer into the crack of the sidewalk and pries up a small bunch of weeds. He quickly explains that a double hip replacement in the late 1980s has left him with little ability to kneel.

"My wife would never let me allow the yard to look like this," he explains with a sheepish grin. The yard is indeed overgrown with weeds. The front door of his home stands ajar. A friend helped him to gut the house, but he has not been able to do any reconstruction.

Elphage lives in a FEMA trailer behind the house in which he and his wife raised their family. His sons have long since moved away. His wife and daughter both died in the past year. Yet, he is determined to restore the home and move his wife and daughter's remains from New Mexico back to New Orleans so that he can visit their graves regularly.

"I'm gonna make it. But, it's been real hard," Elphage says as his voice cracks and small tears roll down his face. "I just don't know what else to do."


Part III: A Window Seat to Disaster

Albert Joseph stands with a plastic bucket marked "donations" as a tour bus escorted by two police motorcycles slowly drives through the 9th Ward. One of the officers sounds a siren, getting the attention of local residents and relief workers - none of whom were blocking the street. As the bystanders turn to look, the middle-aged Caucasian women inside press their faces against the glass as if looking at animals in an urban zoo; a few of them snap pictures with digital cameras.

"This happens more often than you'd like to expect," Joseph says.

Behind Joseph is a large sign that reads, "Tourist: Shame on you. Driving by without stopping, paying to see my pain, 1600+ died here!"

Residents of the 9th Ward are very expressive, and in other parts of the neighborhood, signs to tourists are common. One begs passersby to "come and see." Another practically begs onlookers to "come talk to me!" On the side of a wood-framed house that has been badly damaged by the floodwaters, a grim sign tells tourists "1,600 people died so you can take this picture."

This was not a for-profit tour, but turned out to be a group from Catholic Charities checking on their projects within the city. Charity organizations and local politicians routinely escort visitors through the 9th Ward and other flood-damaged quarters of the cities.

Residents have also noticed a sharp increase in the number of vehicles "just passing through" the area. "It makes you suspicious," says Cephus Lewis, a lifelong resident of the 9th Ward. "It's a respect thing. The least they could do is stop and say 'hi'."

Like a Cemetery

Isabelle Cossart's tour vans used to stop. But, she felt that many of her customers attempted to enter dilapidated homes or tried to take souvenirs from the rubble. "It's like a cemetery," she says, "and people have to have some respect." Over the past several months that the tour has been operating, the stops have become less frequent.

Cossart's business, Tours by Isabelle, is one of three companies offering Post Hurricane Katrina Tours and has been in business over 20 years. Cossart wishes that New Orleans tourists would seek out the beauty of New Orleans, but around 75 percent of her customers request the Post-Hurricane Katrina Tour.

"We're here to give the customers what they want, and what they want is the Hurricane Tour. If we don't do these tours, we're out of a job, and I love my job," she said.

More than just Cossart being out of a job, her guides would also be out of a job. Her tour guides are hurricane survivors, many of whom lost their homes during the storm. When asked if she gives to charity, she says that the high pay she affords her guides is a charitable donation.

Patrick Price, another 9th Ward resident, has a different opinion on the tours. "They should be doing something to help us," he says. "If they just drive by and look, what are they doing for us?"

The Gray Line company used to donate $3 of tour proceeds to nonprofit corporations. At the outset of each tour, the tourists would choose one of the following charities for the contribution to be donated to: Habitat for Humanity, City Park, America's Wetlands, The Louisiana SPCA or the Tipitina's Foundation. However, since the storm, the tourism industry has not been as profitable as it once was, and the charitable donations have stopped. "We had to save our company," said Gray Line Vice President and General Manager Greg Hoffman.

Both Gray Line and Tours by Isabelle begin their tours in the French Quarter, a part of the city that was virtually undisturbed by Hurricane Katrina; both tours highlight the locations of the levee breaches; both tours end in the Upper 9th Ward's Musicians' Village. The entire way, knowledgeable tour guides recount tales of suffering and explain that Hurricane Katrina and the response of inept government created America's worst disaster.

Touching the Pain

On the surface, buses guiding tourists through the rubble of a city where of 1,600 people died seems somehow unsavory. But the tours provide essential context to the disaster. Gray Lines guides explain in simple English how pumping stations were installed within the floodplain, a flaw that allowed them to be flooded instead of pumping water out of the city. Cossart's guides give tourists a firsthand account of the hurricane and its aftermath. Both tours take passengers over a bridge spanning the man-made Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a commercial shipping channel that allowed a 35-foot storm surge to crash into the 9th Ward. The tours pass by gated communities and FEMA trailer parks; they pass pumping stations and weak levees, and they highlight areas that are recovering as well as those that still need help. Without this total view of New Orleans' destruction and rebirth, many tourists would have no understanding of what happened, nor would they understand how much is yet to be done.

"Many people ask us where to give money or where they can volunteer," says Cossart. In fact, "voluntourism" has become as much a part of the New Orleans tourist scene as the Garden District. Thousands of people flock from around the country to spend a few days rebuilding houses, cooking meals or clearing debris. Tours may well play a role in influencing average people to get involved in rebuilding.

Opinions on tours are as varied as the 9th Ward residents themselves. But most agree that they want people to know what happened in New Orleans.

Another area resident opined, "My experience is that the people here are so kind and it really seems to mean a lot to them when the strangers who come through their neighborhood ... take the time to greet them and say hello. It is important in the healing that they share about what they have been through and are continuing to go through."

Ninth Ward resident Christine Green is happy to talk to strangers looking around her neighborhood. But she doesn't mind if they just stop to talk or just drive by. She's just happy that people care enough to come by.

"When the tourists pass by, we just smile and wave," she says.


Click here for:

Part IV: In the Business of Hope
Learn about one of the largest and most effective nonprofit organizations serving the New Orleans community.

Part V: Forgotten but Not Gone: Buras, Louisiana
Experience the rebirth of one small Louisiana town.


Charles E. Anderson's writings have been published by Truthout, Common Dreams and The Huffington Post. He lives in Boone, North Carolina where he is a junior at Appalachian State University. He can be contacted through his web site: www.charleseanderson.com.

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