30 December 2005

New Orleans - Day 4 - Nothing is bizarre anymore

Just to confirm that I'm here for a good reason, I've got to say that I was actually able to be productive over the past few days. I've completed the two assignments from NOLAC (New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation). The first was a supplement to a brief about whether or not notice sent to a vacant lot is in compliance with the La. statutes (it's not). The second assignment was to find a couple who had relocated to Oklahoma and had lost contact in spite of a pending hearing date regarding their bankruptcy filing. I found them because a local (Ok.) paper had done a stirring piece on the loss and reunification of them with their dog. After calling the editor and looking on-line some more I was able to get the editor to drop off a note at their house (he didn't have the phone number) and the woman who gave helped "rescue" their dog is calling them with our urgent message (she didn't feel okay giving out their number to a honkey boy in NO who's not even a lawyer yet). My dad was a detective for a while and I hope I made him proud.

On a side note, the dogs and cats of NO: I love pets, some of you know my guinea pig who recently passed and my rat who is not long for this world. I'm glad there are people working hard to find, rescue, and return dogs to their owners because people connect in a very meaningful way with their pets, it's hard for non-pet people to get it really. That being said, when you see the terrible condition of whole neighborhoods that were underwater, doors smashed in to find dead bodies, hundreds of thousands without homes or jobs or hope ... well it puts the pet situation in perspective a little bit. My old dog Coffee (with two milks) meant the world to me as a kid, but if I had to choose between him and the life of a complete stranger I have to say I'd reach my hand out to the person then the pooch. The LSPCA is doing incredible work with too little funding, but there are individuals, cities, fire departments, and organizations working just as hard for the people on NO who are also under funded. Washington has allocated, at most, about $60 million in relief funding. It's not enough for the relief more or less the rebuilding of this town. And it's far short of what it would take to make NO was it was again within a couple decades.

The people who are back are proud to be here, they are early adopters so to speak. Companies and politicians are "waiting for the dust to settle" and may start making "hard decisions" by the end of January. But the people who can afford to return so quickly are generally whiter and richer than the NO population before Katrina. They will have the biggest impact on how the city is rebuilt and it will definitely reflect the interests of a very limited part of the community.

NO is being exposed to more Latino workers than in its past, they are being brought from Texas or moving here for the hard work that can be found (base wages are quite high here, but rent has also doubled). Land lords are trying to evict tenants as fast as possible so that they can open up their often uninhabitable units to huge rent increases. Apartments that were $800/month will now be more like $1500 and in worse condition.

In addition to the increased housing costs there is less access to the things that everyone needs to survive in any city. Pharmacies are closed, stores are boarded up, and electricity is gone from many parts of the city. In some areas the discussion has turned from "how to rebuild" to "whether or not to rebuild". The area around Xavier was smashed by the flood, there's no where for students to live or eat or, importantly in NO of all places, have fun.

Suburban architecture note: Before WWII people knew that the floods would happen occasionally and they build houses to accommodate a couple to a few feet of flood waters. But after that the suburban architecture took over and "ranch houses" (think standard 60's suburban house) became the norm in spite of their low level design. These suburbs were THE spot for the upwardly mobile during the decades after WWII but suburbanites who move from the city are prone to continuing to move to escape threats and achieve ideals (both real and perceived). The old suburbs became the homes of lower-middle class people in NO, service workers, musicians, often minority citizens. These were the homes most devastatingly impacted by the flooding and their residents who were there by conscious design of the city's urban planners were the worst off as a result. NO and the Federal government have long known that a class 4 or 5 hurricane could breach the levy's of NO, our law school Dean Edley was even briefed on it while working for Clinton as far back as 1993. They results were predictable and predicted, but these communities are not the voters that mattered for politicians. While Dems and Repugnos alike were seeking the votes of soccer moms and NASCAR dads the people living in places like this in NO were being left to fend for themselves.

The houses and the city itself were designed with these problems in mind. Corporations who sought to maximize profits from the construction of these parts of the city used market forces and assumptions to determine how to build with the bottom line in mind. But they did not need to account for the cost to the home owners, to the communities, to the State for their designs. When the market was left to its own devices the most powerful players maxed out their benefits and those at the bottom had to bear the costs. As they talk about rebuilding smart and making hard decisions with the proper political will it seems that there are many people in power who are willing to let the market control how the rebuild it organized. And while they are correct that markets can be very efficient it becomes more and more clear that the people here see this as a problem that exists at the extremes of the system, the harsh edge of capitalism that social organization through government was meant to dull to a tolerable finish. The question is whether or not these voices will be heard or if the political machines will push their troops into action based on the motive to be re-elected rather than to analyze the issues and provide plans that are likely to succeed. If history is any lesson, the future look mighty muddy for NO.

Side note II: lady taking over at JCC Disaster Relief Center was from a larger firm in NO. I asked if she thought things could have been handled better and she said people disagree about that and that she wouldnt say how she thought one way or another. Not being one to take a hint I pressed her a little and she basically said that things are looking great, the economy is good nationally, the country is strong, people in NO are buying things, houses are being rebuild, its getting better. As she said this we looked out over a crown of people desperate for their FEMA funding and emergency aid from the Army Corps of Engineers to just get blue tarps over their roofs (a great free service). She had been there for the past week and must have seen thousands of people cycle through the Disaster Relief Center but to her the President said the country was strong and NO would be rebuilt and maybe there was a silver lining in the flood, maybe now NO would be better, the people would be better, it would be right again, like it used to be. It sounded a lot like the people who moved to the suburbs to escape the problems of the city they wanted less crime, more people who were like themselves financially and racially. Moving to the suburbs was the only way to make that a reality before, but it seems that to some this catastrophe was just a new way of getting rid of the poor and minorities who had taken over their city. This was the most depressing part of my day, but hey, Republicans can do that.

Side note III: went out later tonight with the other students, the clubs are getting a little more full as New Years approaches ... only one lady removed her top and it was commonly agreed that a Cold War containment approach was in fact superior to her more modern "Shock and Awe" strategy. Ugg. Then someone threw a red drink (probably a Hurricane) from a balcony onto a fellow volunteer as we walked home. Perfect ending.

Tomorrow we will visit a Disaster Relief Center in the 9th ward, one of the worst effected areas where houses were actually covered in water even above the roof level. Pictures when I return home on the 7th of January.

No comments: