This is one of those times that I wish I were a poet—even just a decent one—because New Orleans deserves to be described with more powerful imagery than I can offer.
I took the six-day trip not knowing what to expect. I had never been to the city or even to the south. Whenever I mentioned that I would be going, people who had been there before Katrina would get a gleam in their eyes and an instant smile would spread across their faces. So I knew that New Orleans was special. What I didn’t know was that it would steal my heart.
I arrived in New Orleans at midnight on a balmy evening. Sequestered a number of miles from the city in a motel close to the airport, I had no hint of what I would soon witness. I could have been anywhere in the U.S. I thought, This isn’t so bad. Maybe the recovery work is finally in full swing.
Janet Bruno-Small, my contact (and now friend) who lured me to New Orleans, picked me up the next morning and drove me to her lovely jewelry store on Magazine Street, part of what is known as “The Sliver on the River” because it is above sea level. Everything looked fine to my untrained eye. “Just wait until we tour later. You’ll see,” Janet warned amicably. “Katrina did a lot of damage here but the levee breaks didn’t affect us.”
She had to work for a while so I decided to stroll down Magazine Street, with its beautiful architecture and upscale, cute shops that reminded me of Carmel, a picturesque, pricey seaside town in California. I took my video camera just in case I saw “something.” As I left the store, Janet said, “Close the door behind you and be careful out there.” I was struck by both parts of that statement because it was a sunny Friday at noon. But I simply shrugged my shoulders and closed the door as requested, hearing the lock click shut behind me.
I walked next door to a rug gallery and introduced myself as Janet’s friend to Michael, a longtime employee and native of New Orleans. I asked him to tell me about his experience of Katrina as I recorded him with my video camera. He told me that his house was damaged but livable; however, his relatives didn’t fare as well. For months, there were fourteen people living in his home. It was crowded, not just physically but emotionally. The fallout was that he and his sister were now estranged and his wife was refusing to spend Thanksgiving (just days away) with her. He didn’t know what he was going to do. He kept a brave smile as he told me about his hardships, but just underneath, his sadness was all too apparent.
After leaving the rug shop, I turned the corner and was struck by the contrast of what I saw: houses boarded up with black, spray-painted X’s, symbols or numbers in each quadrant. On one house was painted a date in one quadrant and the words dead dog in another. I continued to walk, noticing very few cars and no other pedestrians. The road was uneven with potholes. Anywhere else, these serious dips and cracks would have been surrounded with gates and flagged with warnings for motorists to go around.
When I returned to Janet’s store, I had to knock on the door to be buzzed in. “How do you get customers this way?” I asked naively. Janet stopped her work and looked up at me. “We don’t. Tourists don’t come here anymore. They don’t want to know how bad things are, how dangerous it is here, so they hang out in the French Quarter where the doors to shops stay open and private security patrols the area. We’ve had to pay for private security too.” Janet’s face was getting paler as she educated me. She also looked embarrassed somehow, not for herself I realized, but for the city she loves. The lawlessness and violence that permeate the city—a result of unchecked poverty, lack of resources, and sheer and utter governmental neglect—reminds one that our civility is only as deep as our failsafe mechanisms that are in place before disaster strikes.
Janet took me to a nearby colorful and eccentric café called Winnie’s. It looked well loved but had a For Sale sign on the door, a sad reminder of the economic hardship still driving the middle class out of New Orleans. After ordering what turned out to be the best Portobello mushroom and cheese sandwich I’ve ever tasted, I turned on my video camera and started asking questions. Winnie, a flamboyant native perhaps in his late forties, was ready to talk. He gave a steady stream of examples of hardship, frustration, and graft: It took him three days to get the fire department to shut off a leaking hydrant across the street. When he called his local fire station, he heard a recording that the number was now private. A private number for a local station? “What if you had an emergency?” He laughed bitterly, “You’re on your own, darlin’!”
Winnie spoke into the camera about the financial burdens: He and his partner David had to clean up their restaurant alone after Katrina, including dragging their refrigerator and freezer onto the street and dumping all their food. The storm water had gotten inside, causing maggot growth and a stench that was unbearable. This was the same story for hundreds of thousands of citizens. At one point, New Orleans had 400,000 refrigerators and freezers littering the streets, waiting to be hauled off by authorities, who would drain the Freon and then send them to the dump. Lined up end to end, the appliances would have stretched from New Orleans to Chicago (so I’m told).
David, who had been too shy to be filmed earlier, now chimed in about needing to get a new roof, like everyone else in the city. “It would have cost $2500 before Katrina. Now the contractors wanted $12,000. Why? Because they could! And just how could we pay for that with no customers, no business, and no water for three months? And now the utility company wants us to make up for its losses. Our electric bill is so high we can’t keep our doors open.”
I asked them both, still recording their responses, “What can people outside of New Orleans do to help? What should we know?” They both just shook their heads, just as Michael in the rug shop had. I asked these same questions of more than a dozen people and got the same blank stare. After a few more days in New Orleans, I came to understand that look. All of them, to a great extent, felt ignored, forgotten, and invisible. Many had been abandoned by their own families. All of them were abandoned by the government. “We’re on our own here,” was a common refrain. The question they all ask themselves is, “Am I a fool for staying?”
Until I toured the city later that day and the next, including the infamous Ninth Ward, I didn’t understand how bad things still were. The media don’t keep New Orleans in the headlines so our attention goes elsewhere. It shouldn’t.
That afternoon and the next day, I traveled for hours through neighborhoods and saw mile after mile of boarded-up buildings, cement slabs, weeds, broken levees, piles of debris, and an occasional front step where a house once stood. No cars, no kids playing, no life. I could hear the wind where I should have heard voices and other signs of life. New Orleans looks like a war zone. Today. Still.
Katrina was an equal opportunity disaster but the aftermath is not. The ones who had insurance could afford to leave or rebuild. The middle class are left struggling to salvage their livelihoods and homes. The poor are camped out in front of City Hall, or in FEMA trailers, or in homes with no running water or electricity—to this day. Some have received money for low-income housing. But there is no low-income housing in New Orleans. There are no city services, no infrastructure. One can drive for miles without seeing an open grocery store, gas station, hospital, or fire station.
Real estate prices have escalated as a result of low supply and high demand, forcing a continuing exodus, which hurts the remaining shopkeepers and tax base. The mayor of New Orleans, while pleading for people to return, has moved his own family to Atlanta.
As with a war, the hardest hit are the children, particularly poor children. The new vice principal of a local elementary school called me after I returned from my trip. She had heard that I was offering to donate 150 copies of my Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation and she was hoping they were still available. “You don’t know what it’s like for these kids, Jane,” Vice Principal Kim started. “They’re just starting now to talk about what happened. Most of them were at the Superdome. Many of them don’t live with either parent anymore. They’re living with neighbors, cousins, grandparents. And the adults in their lives are depressed. We’re all depressed. The kids are too. I want to help them. But how? No one is coming here to tell us what to do for them and their families. We’ve got to do something. I wanted your books because maybe it would help them to write about their trauma. Do you think that’s a good idea?” Before I could answer, Kim apologized with, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be talking your ear off.” “Yes, yes, you should,” I said quickly, trying to reassure her as I felt my own helplessness creep up. “It sounds like you need mental health professionals. Maybe I can help get some folks to you.” Kim sighed with momentary relief at just the idea. “That would be great. That would be wonderful.”
Kim’s appreciation for any small act of kindness was typical of my experience while there. I counseled individuals anywhere I was asked to go: garages, cafes, houses, city parks. Everyone I sat with was shocked and honored that I had shown up just to help them. I kept telling them that I was the one who was honored to be of service. I confessed that I had thought for two years about helping somehow and had felt immobilized. I had considered Habitat for Humanity but was useless with a hammer.
It wasn’t until I met up with Janet through a mutual friend in September that I realized that my counseling and seminar skills might be beneficial. I think I was hooked when she told me that after she evacuated, she was watching the news and saw that patients were stuck in one of the local hospitals. Janet took it upon herself to hire a private helicopter to rescue those people from certain death. By the way, Janet has multiple sclerosis and uses a walker. If Janet could take responsibility to rescue strangers at her own expense, certainly I could do something.
After listening to people’s stories, I came to understand that Katrina didn’t cause all their problems, but she did manage to bring to the surface every underlying issue that had lain dormant. I learned that they had the same needs and opportunities for healing and personal growth as we all do. So during my weekend in New Orleans, I held my Enough Is Enough! seminar for some of Janet’s friends and acquaintances at the downtown W Hotel. The participants were so grateful that I did this with them. But as much as they appreciated the work, I suspect that the real highlight of their day was this: In mid-afternoon while they were on a break, I ordered a couple of trays of cookies and chocolate truffles. When they walked back in the room and saw the treats, a couple of them burst into tears, taking my hands, whispering their thanks.
So what can you do to help? Anything. Just show up. Bring cookies. Bring an open heart and an open mind. Be a good listener. Share whatever skills you possess. Someone will use them. You’ll be scooped up quickly by outstretched, loving arms. In New Orleans, there is great hardship but there is also an abundance of hospitality.
Here are just a few ideas:
*Call a public school and ask what they need. Kim Nance at James Weldon Johnson Elementary School is waiting to hear from mental health professionals and health professionals: (504) 861-7718.
*Acupuncturists, chiropractors, dentists, massage therapists—the word will spread quickly that you’re on your way.
*If you can’t go, send textbooks.
*Get one of your local schools to become a “sister school.”
*Buy your holiday gifts from local merchants. Many of them have Web sites. Janet’s jewelry store is Mon Coeur: www.moncoeurneworleans.com. Janet gives a tremendous amount to the community through her business, so your support helps many others get back on their feet. Besides, her jewelry is beautiful.
*Support Habitat for Humanity, which is helping to build a lovely enclave for displaced musicians.
*Bring your children there for Spring Break so they have an opportunity to pitch in.
*Regardless of your religious beliefs, support the church organizations still handing out food and providing shelter.
*Send this blog to everyone on your e-mail list. There is such power in numbers.
Our politics and opinions about the city’s future don’t matter. What matters is the care of each other’s hearts and spirits and that is easier to provide than what we have been taught to believe. This was my lesson from New Orleans. I’m going back. Care to join me?
Jane on TV January 10, 2008
I will be interviewed on NBC 11’s The Bay Area Today on January 10. I will be talking about New Year’s resolutions. Expect a fresh take on the subject. More details to follow.
Jane Straus is a trusted life coach, dynamic keynote speaker, and the author of Enough Is Enough! Stop Enduring and Start Living Your Extraordinary Life. With humor and grace, Jane offers her clients and seminar participants insights and exercises to ensure that the next chapter of their lives is about thriving as the unique individuals they have always been and the extraordinary ones they are still becoming. She serves clients worldwide and invites you to visit her site, StopEnduring.com. Here you will find excerpts from her book, more articles, TV and radio interviews, and clips from her presentations.
She is also the author of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, Grammarbook.com, an award-winning online resource and workbook with easy-to-understand rules, real-world examples, and fun quizzes.
Contact Jane at Jane@JaneStraus.com.