Tuesday, September 05, 2006

My Driving Tour

If you come to New Orleans, you can go on a bus tour that highlights the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. As I've noted in previous posts, in the western suburb in which I live, life has just about returned to normal. The last hurdle is waiting for FEMA to pick up those trailers people waited so long to acquire. My daily life takes me around this suburb and into the city--but only to the "sliver by the river" that didn't flood. While I periodically have excuse to drive into the more damaged areas of town, they are few and far between, basically because there is nothing going on there. Well, yesterday. Labor Day, I decided to do a driving tour. I drove out West End Blvd. to Robert E. Lee, passing the modular home that was in Saturday's paper. It had a long line of people waiting to tour it. I must say, the house looked like it belonged in Lakeview and in New Orleans. If I was one of those people who had to replace my house, I think modular would be the way to go. The paper said they could have you in your house by Christmas. Considering how much fun I've had getting repair men out here, I think that's almost a miracle. I drove down Robert E. Lee to Paris Avenue, with a few short detours onto the "bird" streets of Lake Vista. That's an area that has levees that protected it from the other levee breaks, so for the most part it didn't flood, or at least not to the extent that the neighboring areas did.

I drove down Paris Avenue through what was a middle class African-American neigbhorhood (Lakeview and Lake Vista are primarily upper class White. It was spooky. There were few trailers, and a lot of the yards were not kept up. Houses were open to the elements. After a year of that, in some ways they looked worse than they did a year ago. No businesses were open. The large Catholic church and school were shuttered, the parishoners have been "clustered" at the parish in Lake Vista. The archbishop did not dissolve many parishes, but clustered quite a few, saying that as the recovery continues needed parishes will be reopened. I suspect Katrina kept the Archbishop from having to make a lot of the kind of decisions that have had to be made in many old Catholic cities--decisions to close inner city churches that once serve large immigrant populations, churches that many people still carry a sentimental attachment to, but churches that serve a fraction of the number of people they were build to serve.

From there I headed "down to Deh Parish" or to use standard English, to St.Bernard Parish, where many of the houses had water up to and over the rooftops. To get there I had to drive through the Ninth Ward, which was the site of one of the levee breaks. The Ninth Ward, I learned through a couple of lawsuits I worked on before Katrina, was a neighborhood of working class folks, mostly African Americans. About 50% of the homes were owner-occupied, often by people who had inherited them. Sometimes those same folks owned a rental or two in the neighborhood. Because these people were not wealthy and because these buildings were not mortgaged, many of them did not have insurance. Most of these houses were nothing to write home about before the storm, now they are in even worse shape. There were some trailers, but some parts of the neighborhood don't have utilities even now.

One thing I have to say is that those folks in St. Bernard have spunk. It is a White blue collar community. In the 1960's and 70's they moved from the Ninth Ward to St. Bernard. Family members lived in close proximity to each other. Everything down there was covered with water for weeks. Most people lost anything they didn't take with them. Yet, I saw more signs of hope there than I did in parts of the city. Many yards had trailers in them. There were several trailer parks full of FEMA (travel) trailers and even a few with real trailers. Home Depot was bustling and some businesses had reopened. Last year their school superintendent said that without schools the people couldn't come back so she was going to reopen the schools whether she had the money to do so or not. They were able to use portable classrooms and the second floor of a high school to open an all-grades school even before Christmas, and before New Orleans managed to open even their undamaged schools. I think St. Bernard will be back, but I'm not so sure about some of the city.

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