10 Years Later, a Witness Remembers
A decade after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the rural gulf coast, communities retain their humanity, despite government abandonment. Imagine what they could have accomplished with more effective public and institutional support.
Video directed by Joel Cohen/Semaphore Media and produced by the Center for Rural Strategies.
It was a lousy time. The coast was wrecked. The houses were flung like match sticks and families were flung like houses, just farther. The institutions that we look to for help in disasters – the government, Red Cross, private foundations – were at best dysfunctional and at worst perfidious. Katrina, then Rita, left a 300-mile wound across the Gulf Coast. The healing would not come painlessly.
I was in Australia when Katrina hit, there to give a speech, lay around the pubs, and frolic on the beach. But the storm back home made for compulsory TV viewing, and I sat to watch it all, listening to the foreign-service journalists sputtering out questions about why America couldn’t, wouldn’t take care of her people.
Guys like me who grow up in the South think of New Orleans as the other place they need to get back to, a universal Plan B. I’ve never met anyone who longs for Atlanta, or Charlotte, or Lexington for that matter. As Tom Waits sings: “Well I wish I was in New Orleans, I can see it in my dreams.”
When I got back to the U.S., I flew to Memphis (New Orleans was shut) for a meeting of national and regional funders to strategize their disaster response. With $60 billion dollars of federal money on the table for recovery and rebuilding, the assembled program officers took that moment to squabble about which plan-of-action/theory-of-change was best for the Crescent City and for the Gulf. Some wanted to fund ACORN, others community foundations, still others community colleges, universities, and the list went on. The director of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Community Foundation stood up and said she had just been speaking to a colleague who had come to advise them. He had witnessed the Indian Ocean tsunami of the year before (the one that killed 228,000). She said he told her that Katrina was like their tsunami, just worse: that when the tsunami came, it brought the garbage in, but it took the garbage back out to sea when it left. Katrina, he and she agreed, had brought the garbage in and left it. She then talked about missing all the porch pots of flowers she saw before the storm. I wanted to puke.
Whatever chance foundations had to leverage the Bush administration’s billions to a more inclusive, thoughtful, or greener redevelopment was soon washed away like garbage after a tsunami. The billions in contracts went to big concerns like Haliburton, which subcontracted work to smaller outfits. And instead of the federal government lining up to support a common agenda for the region, the administration funded hand-picked cronies and propped up political allies like New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who had hidden in an undisclosed location while his people were on rooftops waving to the skies for rescue.
Rural Archive/Shawn PoynterHolly Beach, in southwest Louisiana, one of the coastal communities wiped out by the hurricanes of 2005
So for the next five years we were witnesses.
Six weeks after hurricane Rita, we met fisherman Brian Pitre in Erath, Louisiana, living under a tree while his disabled wife, who could neither speak, walk, or feed herself, sheltered in a tiny sports camper in the front yard. Eleven thousand federal disaster trailers were locked away in an Arkansas lot. No one in charge had figured out how to move them to people in need.
We drove from Abbeyville to Cameron, Louisiana, traveling a 50 mile stretch with only one habitable house standing; hundreds of trees, cars, and graves were strewn about willy-nilly alongside the roadway. No schools, no pharmacies, no supermarkets existed when we arrived in Cameron. Yet people were already hammering in stakes, hauling in lumber, planning to rebuild. Just down the road in Holly Beach, the Cajun Riveria, where hundreds of homes had stood weeks earlier, now there was an empty plane, an American flag standing up in a pile of debris.
In Mississippi we talked to undocumented Salvadoran workers who were living four to a room in a condemned motel, no power, mud still caked on moldy carpet. They were paid for cleanup from federal contracts subcontracted and subcontracted again by disaster profiteers getting around auditors. We interviewed African-American families who could not get insurance to pay for damaged property because it was marked by intestate deeds. We saw local red tape scotch new communities of color while Gulf Coast casinos expanded with official subsidy. We heard tales of communications failures, systemic social service failures, and story after bitter story of the national Red Cross raking in money while local chapters were playing favorites on who got blankets.
Rural Archive/Shawn PoynterThe reflection of clean-up volunteers shows in a discarded mirror.
And yet with time we saw something special. Where response systems had faltered or failed, humanity succeeded. Nonprofits supersized their missions, their service areas, and their hours per week while new local groups organized themselves out of thin air. Mennonites from the Midwest and sportsmen from the Northeast began to find their way down to lend a hand. Sunday school classes of teens came from North Carolina and Texas and California to muck the mud and mold out of abandoned houses. Thousands of men and women do-it-yourselfers gave up their vacation time to come build homes for down and out Americans whom they had never met and likely would never see again.
The hardest part about being a witness is not remembering things right, it is remembering the right things: the story of the dad who nailed the shirt of his toddler to the roof of the house so the boy wouldn’t roll into the water while he slept. The fatigue in Karen Keeves’ voice as she stands at the door and explains the weeks of living in a flooded cottage with the carpet rotting under her feet. The eyes of Pops Saucier holding his father’s fiddle that he found floating in the water. “Water this high, what are you going to save?” he asks. “We saved our lives.”
Ten years after, there are green, Brad Pitt houses in the Ninth Ward and beautifully designed Katrina cottages, built to withstand 150 mile-an-hour winds. They dot the coast from Holly Beach, Louisiana, to East Biloxi, Mississippi. Karen Keeves got the first one. But the part of the coast that has been built back, the houses, the neighborhoods, the cities and towns are celebrated differently when they are seen in the light of what was lost and what was endured.
Dee Davis is publisher of the Daily Yonder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies. Follow him on Twitter @IAmFlyrock.