01 September 2005

New Orleans

"Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living."
--Mary Harris "Mother" Jones (1830-1930)

By now, everyone has seen the images of chaos, horror, death, and destruction that continue to come out of New Orleans. We are now days into the disaster, and it is far from clear how or when things are going to end. People are still stranded in the city, without food, without water, and, more and more, without hope. The number of storm-related deaths in New Orleans is not yet known. In part, this is because there has been no time to count bodies. In part, this is because people have not yet stopped dying.

Watching the news images that have appeared on my TV, in my morning paper, on my computer, and in countless other places, there is one thing that has struck me the most about who is still in New Orleans: most of the huddled masses of miserable people seem to be residents of the city's poorer areas - the inner city. I am not at all familiar with New Orleans, but from my own experience growing up in the Bronx, and having spent time working for social service agencies, there are a few things that I think I know about the background that many of these refugees come from. I am going to write about my hunches regarding the situation in the city because I understand cities better than I understand smaller towns, but much of this may hold true along the rest of the Gulf Coast.

And, while it was regarded as pretty good evidence of criminality to be living in a slum, for some reason owning a whole street of them merely got you invited to the very best social occasions.

-- Terry Pratchett
Feet of Clay
Unfortunately, if I were to ask you what the first thing that pops into your mind is when I mention the people left in New Orleans, the answer is probably going to be "looting". It is an additonal tragedy, although one that pales in comparison to the others right now, that most of the people who are left in the city are going to be tarred with the same brush as the looters in the minds of many. That happens a lot when you live in poorer neighborhoods, but most of the people who live there are not criminals. They are good people, most of whom scrape by working at low-paying jobs - as janitors, or nurses' aids, or retail clerks. They are people who live in places that have more than their share of crime, that have more than their share of drug addicts and alcoholics, and that have perhaps a bit less than their share of opportunities. For the most part, they live in these places because that is where they can afford to live.

Many people are asking why these folks didn't evacuate when they were told to. There obviously isn't any one answer to that question, since there are many different people there now. For those in the poorer communities of the city, one of the reasons was probably that they didn't have anywhere to run to, and no way to get there. If there are areas in New Orleans that are anything at all like some of the places I've lived and worked, there are probably thousands of people who have never left the city in their lives. Many of them don't have cars. Fewer have new cars. Some may have been afraid that their homes would be looted if they left. Others may not have been able to afford to leave. Some may simply have not known what to do, where to go, or how to live. Some may not have thought that they were strong enough to make the trip on their own.

All of that, of course, doesn't really matter much right now. Whatever the reasons that they stayed, those people are there now, need to be rescued now, need to get food now, need to be sheltered now. Besides the federal, state, and local governments, there are going to be a number of non-governmental agencies, such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, helping meet the immediate needs of the survivors. Those groups are going to need money to do that, and I hope that everyone who is able to help will.

But the poor people, both within New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, are going to need assistance well into the future. The losses to the insurance industry from this storm are estimated to run over 25 billon dollars. But those losses do not take into account the losses suffered by many of the poor, because many of them had no insurance. FEMA will help with replacing some of what they lost, but keep in mind that many of those people lived in apartments or rented houses - I don't know how much assistance FEMA will be able to provide for them to relocate.

We often hear the phrase, "nothing left but the clothes on his back". Fortunately, it is often hyperbole. Even if the entire house is gone, along with all the contents, there is insurance and there are savings. For many of the victims of Katrina, this is not the case. In the neighborhood where I grew up, many people had no bank account and had no savings. They live paycheck to paycheck, cashing them for a fee at a Check Cashing storefront. Few had even a month's worth of savings to fall back on. Credit cards are not universally available. In my old neighborhood, some of the supermarkets and convenience stores didn't install terminals until the Food Stamp program went to an electronic fund transfer system. Virtually nobody there had 401ks. Those lucky enough to be in stable jobs might have had a union pension, but the rest had Social Security. Many of the senior citizens in the neighborhood had no family left. For anyone in the zone of destruction who was in a situation like that, "clothes on their back" may well be the literal truth.

Organizations such as the Red Cross are going to need money now, and I hope that everyone who can chip in will contribute to the charity or charities of their choice. But please don't make that your last involvement with this crisis. For many people, the road to recovery will be extremely long and extremely difficult. They will be faced with trying to replace everything that they own, with finding new housing to rent, with finding new jobs, and they will be forced to do this without having savings or insurance to fall back on. They will need a great deal of assistance, and they will need it for a long time to come. Please keep this in mind, and please try to remain aware of the situation so that you can help again later on, after the charities have gone through the burst of immediate donations. For many, the need two or three months down the road may be as pressing as it is now.
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