Thursday, February 4, 2010

New Orleans

New Orleans was the destination of my recent business trip. I lived for a long time in Houston, so I’ve been to New Orleans more times than I can count. My husband and I used to go over to the Big Easy for long weekends a few times each year. I’m not much for Bourbon Street or the casino, but beyond that I always really enjoy New Orleans. It has a unique blend of cultures and an amazing history.

In the summer and early fall of 2005, I was on family leave with my second child. In between bottles, walks in the stroller, and tummy time, I was glued to the TV footage of Katrina and its aftermath. We still had cable and I probably overdosed on CNN. Like many Americans, I was heartbroken and traumatized by the images and the scale of the catastrophe. During that time, Houston was scrambling to accommodate and assist the shell-shock survivors who hadn’t been able to get out of New Orleans before the storm. It is still emotional just thinking of what happened.

And just a month after Katrina, Hurricane Rita initially seemed to be even stronger and headed for Houston. Like many in Houston who had been terrified by the plight of our New Orleans neighbors, our own family evacuated. My husband, our kids, and other relatives huddled for days in Grandma’s little condo in San Antonio not knowing if we’d have anything to go back to and worried sick about our friends who could not or chose not to leave Houston in time. As a distraction and to get out of the small condo, we took our kids to the San Antonio Children’s Museum. I remember tearing up when I realized we qualified for a discount for hurricane evacuees. Our family had given to those who had come to Houston to escape Katrina; I never thought we might be on the recipient end and it was demoralizing.

In the end, Rita mainly hit Louisiana, just as they were trying to make sense of the post-Katrina chaos. Our Houston home was fine, just a lot of rotten food due to prolonged electrical outages. Over the next few years, the recovery of New Orleans was incredibly slow and obviously is far from complete. In many ways, I think NOLA’s experience with Katrina is not that different from Haiti’s with the recent earthquake. Haiti has been the poorest country in the western hemisphere for some time. On a good day, infrastructure and basic services are lacking, and life is very tough. New Orleans too has long been a city of stark contrasts. Though there are pockets of great wealth, there has also long been horrible poverty. The educational system has been a monumental disgrace, condemning the poor to future generations of poverty and creating disincentives to business and job growth in the region. The local and regional governments have been plagued by corruption, adding to the local problems instead of alleviating them. Though to differing degrees, both Haiti and New Orleans show us the painful human toll when a dysfunctional government and economy are further crippled by a natural disaster.

With two very young kids, our family did not ever make it back to New Orleans before we moved from Houston. This recent business trip was my first time back in New Orleans since Katrina. It was eerie and sad being there—even in the parts of town that have completely recovered. I landed in Louis Armstrong Airport, which was full of travelers. But I kept thinking of the desperate post-storm triage at the airport and how so many had died there. Being in the airport a few weeks ago, it did not seem like anything out of the ordinary had ever happened. I don’t know what I was expecting exactly, but not the regular hussle-bussle you see at all major airports. Maybe I was somehow expecting something like the respectful silence when you visit a historic battlefield where many lost their lives.

During my business trip, I stayed at a hotel along the Mississippi River, just outside the French Quarter and adjacent to the River Walk Mall (which is next to the Convention Center). The mall had been heavily looted during the desperation and chaos after the levees broke. People had made their way to the Convention Center but then languished as they waited for rescue workers who did not materialize for days. But walking in the mall, like in the French Quarter, things didn’t seem any different than before the storm.

At the end of my stay, as I headed back to the airport, the taxi went past the Convention Center. Again, you would not have known anything out of the extraordinary had happened there just a few years ago. There were plenty of conventioneers around, and there was a Starbucks in the lobby of the Convention Center. Everything looked clean and restored. There was this granite memorial across the street to remember those who suffered and had died in the wake of Katrina. But it seemed so little and insignificant compared to the gravity of what took place at that site in 2005. The poverty in New Orleans continues to be such a huge problem. So, I guess it would not be an appropriate use of resources to have some bigger, more elaborate memorial like those erected in Oklahoma City to remember the victims of the Murrah Federal Building bombing or in Manhattan to remember the victims of 9/11. And in those other tragedies, the death and destruction was concentrated in one place while after Katrina the suffering in New Orleans was all over the city. It just seems stunning though that in the places where most out-of-towners go, there is so little physical evidence of all the horrific suffering that took place. The post-Katrina debacle was one of the worst human disasters and one of the greatest failures of government in our nation’s history. Yet, the city does not seem to want tourists to remember.

John 11:32-41 (New American Standard)

Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, "Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died."
When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled,
and said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to Him, "Lord, come and see."
Jesus wept.
So the Jews were saying, "See how He loved him!"
But some of them said, "Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?"
So Jesus, again being deeply moved within, came to the tomb. Now it was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.
Jesus said, "Remove the stone." Martha, the sister of the deceased, said to Him, "Lord, by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days."
Jesus said to her, "Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?"
So they removed the stone Then Jesus raised His eyes, and said, "Father, I thank You that You have heard Me.

1 comment:

  1. Hurricanes are so tragic. The emotions associated with them create a large range of opinions. Some people want to remember while others want nothing more than to forget.