On the eve of Hurricane Gustav’s landfall

I just got off the phone with my parents. We talked about the storm that is about to hit the gulf coast almost three years to the day that Katrina struck—almost three years to the day that the unstable levees broke, spilling water onto the streets, engulfing the city, leaving my parents’ home and so many others ruined and drowning thousands of New Orleanians. Most of our time on the phone was spent in silence because, really, what do you say at a moment like this?

While I am comforted by the knowledge that my mom and dad are ok and their home is on safer, higher ground than last time, there was really nothing we had to say to one another that would induce comfort. There is a clear line drawn in all New Orleanians: the time before the storm and the time after the storm. There is no way to view this storm except through the lens of Katrina. There is no way to view this moment except with the knowledge of the manmade failures—in the shape of faulty levees, diverted funds, poor planning before and abandonment after the city of New Orleans was underwater. This is after. We have no trust that still inadequate levees will protect our city. We have no trust that our government will step in to help our city, our neighbors, our friends.

At least once a week, I answer the question of how New Orleans is doing. Typically, it is to someone I have just met. They will have just asked where I am from, and after I tell them, they pause.
"Oh," they say solemnly. "Then, do you know people who were affected by–"
"Yes, I do."
"I’m sorry."
Then they’ll ask how the city is now. And what I do–what I have to and feel obligated to do–is tell the truth.

I tell them that I was in New Orleans in October of 2006, a year after I helped my mom and dad remove our sopping wet, ruined possessions from our home, and that it looked like nothing had been done.

I tell them the city is coming back but slowly. There is not enough help or support. There is not enough money coming in. I tell them that the outpouring of help from generous everyday citizens from around the country who have come to help has been amazing, but that this is not their responsibility and they cannot do it alone. It is our government’s responsibility to its citizens and to a city of historical and cultural significance. And our government does not seem to care enough.

I tell them that although the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina revealed to all of us what deep class and racial divides still exist very obviously in our country, there is total denial now about those problems. I tell them that New Orleans has changed, and that many of it’s low-income African-American residents have been unable to return because of lack of support and bureaucracy that wants to keep them out instead of invite them home. I tell them the city council voted unanimously to tear down over 4,000 public housing units that were not damaged by the storm in a time when the estimated homeless count in New Orleans is over 12,000. This homeless count does not count people who are doubled and tripled up in apartments because the rents are staggering and they still haven’t recovered from losing everything.

I know that the truth is not always what people what to hear. I know that telling the truth may sometimes make me a downer in the conversation. However, I am unwilling to put on a positive spin to reassure people or to pretend that things are better than they are. I have needed to tell the truth because I felt like people needed to know how things really were so they would put pressure on their officials to do something, to support New Orleans.

I am grieved by the lack of responsibility, accountability and support from my national government to my city. I am grieved because I know that Louisiana legislators repeatedly asked for funding to repair and rebuild the levees. I am grieved because I know that money slated to go to repair levees was diverted to the war in Iraq, an unjust war that I protested against.

And now, I am grieved once again because I see Gustav headed towards my city, and I know that the levees are not prepared. I know that many people have just moved into the houses that they finally have rebuilt, in large part from their own hard work, hard-earned money and dedication. I know that just a few days ago, there was a memorial service for those unknown persons who were victims of the storm, and I fear the lack of attention means there will be more lives lost. I know that there is the potential not only that New Orleans will be further destroyed but that it will once again be abandoned by our government. And I know that it did not have to be this way.

Lisa O’Neill, a proud New Orleans native, is a writer and teacher presently living and working in Tucson, Arizona. She can be reached at [email protected].

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