Tuesday, September 27, 2011

What it's like to be living in New Orleans after The Storm

There are many ways in which Alli differs from you. An enthusiastic & charming red head, she cheers on progressive ecological policies and the New Orleans Saints with the same delighted fervor. However, her unusual way of measuring time is more typical than you might think.

“Talk to someone from down here and I can guarantee they will begin a story by saying, ‘So this happened Before Katrina/After Katrina... B.K. and A.K.—learn it, live it, love it!’ she explains, with both gravity and lightheartedness. “Another acceptable story timetable is Before the Storm and After the Storm. The Storm. You know which one I’m talking about!”

Survivor doesn’t even begin to describe the mentality that Alli and those around her had to adopt. In 2005, New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina, one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States. As if the devastation of losing homes and loved ones wasn’t enough, the people of New Orleans, affectionately called NOLA, were also subjected to the kind of inappropriateness that caused the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Michael Brown to resign. Although so much tragedy made the news at the time, and eventually many questions were asked about government responses, rebuilding New Orleans has almost disappeared from the news although challenges continue.

Being able to communicate with Alli is a bit like watching a big theatre rendition of the storm. Her rhetoric is honest and sincere, almost sounding like the narration of a movie screen heroine you want to be best friends with. She cannot say one thing without accompanying it with a few facts about Nola. Despite the difficulties she and so many others have endured, she starts by insisting “I was one of the lucky ones.” You can only sit back and think that no, you are, for being able to hear what she has to say.

My family and I evacuated before the storm. I was 15 years old at the time. We were originally planned to go to Arkansas to meet up with friends, but it took a good 10 hours just to get to Jackson, MS—a trip that usually only takes 3 hours. We had my two cats and my beta fish, so traveling was getting tricky. Watching one of your cats sink lower down in the stacked up cargo area of your Jeep is only cute for so long. We stopped at a rest stop in Jackson and booked the last hotel room at a Holiday Inn. The outer bands of Katrina reached to Jackson and the hotel’s electricity went out; everyone was locked out of their rooms because the key swiper went down. All the guests stayed in the lobby with a gourmet meal of crackers for dinner. The time in the lobby felt normal—sure we were with people we’ve literally never talked to before, but my sister and I annoyed each other, I spotted a cute boy, I got bored. Time passed.

The next day, we got electricity in the hotel. With that came both a dreaded and revered item: television. News. Images of Katrina flashed before us.
One woman shrieked, “Oh my God, that’s my house, that’s my neighborhood!”
Everything was underwater.
She broke down crying.
I was hopeful the government would be of assistance. The hope was dashed when the levee breaches happened. We trusted them to protect us, yet the ARMY Corp of Engineers couldn’t do that. The Corp claimed they didn’t have prior knowledge the levees were in danger of breaching, but they put their own study in 1986 that said separations in the I-Wall were possible. 1986. They clearly knew what the consequences of the storm could be. I was flummoxed that federal government was not prepared, that government officials were playing the blame game. Step up when your residents need you most. Don’t cower when there’s a problem; we elected y’all to protect us, so do what you’ve sworn you’ll do. What gave me back hope was residents doing their own rescue missions, people coming in from all over to lend a hand, charities and international countries donating to help out. They were doing what the local and federal government was scared of.

New Orleans is used to political corruptness (Hey Bill Jefferson! Nice stack of food containers in there, I heard that helps keep laundered money fresher, too!), but for an organization that is literally Federal Emergency Management Agency, they were woefully, embarrassingly unprepared. How could they not manage the aftermath? You prepare for the worst and pray for the best, not the other way around!
...I guess they didn’t get that memo.
It’s so sobering seeing ones you love not getting proper help because of failure in the emergency preparedness. When FEMA finally did help out, they distributed trailers that contained formaldehyde. This means not only did recipients not have a place to live, but they also had to inhale cancer-causing carcinogens! Pitiful all over.

The journalist, who in my opinion did the greatest job, is definitely Anderson Cooper. Journalists aren’t supposed to let the stories take them over, but his honest portrayal of emotions showed the country, “This is real.” You could see this wasn’t just another piece to cover to get new viewers. It wasn’t sensationalized. He honestly wanted all of the answers for the citizens when he let loose on Mary Landrieu, who thanked Bush for his “Great response.”
Anderson Cooper responded, “I got to tell you. There are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated. And when they hear politicians . . . thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now. Because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats, because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there’s not enough facilities to take her up. Do you get the anger that is out here?

Despite all that has happened, New Orleans pride is something real. We may be a small-big city, but did you know our WWII Museum is the only museum that addresses all of the D-Days? We were gifted portions of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall! During Mardi Gras season there can be the biggest mess of beads and trash in the street at the end of the night, but you wake up in the morning and it’s like house elves paid us a visit because everything is spotless. Seriously. There’s also always something going on —jazz concert with Rebirth Brass Band, restaurants opening, crazy good small businesses being opened, and Saints games (Who Dat, y’all!). We're going to progress in the art scene, the restaurant scene, the medicine scene —we have really awesome hospital and animal research down here, which many people don’t realize. So come down here! Eat ‘til you swear you’ve had enough to eat to last ‘til next year and then eat some more. Get a hurricane —the drink, thank you very much— at Pat O’s & then walk out with your drink because NOLA doesn’t have an open container law. (It works. Honestly!) Just please, for the love of God, do not flash yourself on Bourbon St. It’s a bulls eye that you’re a tourist.

In the future, I see New Orleans thriving even more than we already are. The New Orleans that is now is not what you saw on TV 6 years ago. There’s still work to be done, but there always will be. Whether it’s now or 5 years down the line, we’ll still have Southern hospitality. New Orleans has been called the New York City of the South, but I think we’re our own city. No matter how many times this has been said, it will always be true: you can’t capture the atmosphere of New Orleans anywhere but here.

Some notes From Alli:
-Fleurty Girl is an amazing local store that has really taken off. Lauren Thom, owner of the store, has done so many amazing things for the city. She heard about a man in Tremé who was selling t-shirts with “I Heart Tremé” to try and raise enough money for rebuilding his house. She took over production and donated 100% of the sales so he could rebuild his house.
-The wetlands are being destroyed at such a fast rate and it's a danger to coastal cities, coastal wildlife, and the ecology system as a whole. They are a natural barrier to help slow down hurricanes before they approach us; if the wetlands devolve into nothing, we're pretty much messed up for good. Donate your (natural, undecorated) Christmas trees once you're through with them. It gets deposited in the wetlands to help regrow them.

& there's always something else... KK Projects, which are really visually striking /  Flakes, which is set in NOLA before the storm, is pretty charming & just what you'd want from a Zooey Deschanel movie / Jazz is narrated by Ken Burns. I'm one episode in, and it is so comprehensive but always interesting.

All images are from Alli, which was very appreciated.
What It’s Like to Be… is a series of interviews with people, especially young women, who have stories to tell about, well, being them! From a woman who’s had an abortion to growing up with two mothers to experiencing dementia, I am open minded about who I interview. If you would like to tell your story, please email me at alwaysalwayssomething (at) gmail (dot) com so we can start to talk!


Rebecca Jane said...

I read this with fascination. If features as good as this one are going to be a regular thing, I have to say that I will be singing your praises even more than usual.

Anonymous said...

Amazing post! Very well written. Does she have a blog of her own?

Emlyn said...

Before "The Storm" New Orleans was always a place I wanted to visit. Seeing the destruction initially on TV it was hard to imagine New Orleans rebuilt despite the amount of aid going into it. Now I can see it is the vibrant and determined people of New Orleans who have managed to rebuild it into a now thriving place, NOT charities or the government. Now, especially after reading this post, I hope to visit some day!

Katie said...

What an inspiring story!
Alli is so pretty :o)

rachel said...

amazing post! this girl is so great! her writing is so above the rest. it will take her very far. she has been through alot and from reading this you can tell she is a very strong person! we should all strive to be more like alli! and i agree with katie, she is SEAUX pretty! and i would love to see more of her writing! alli, if you don't already have a blog make one because you are amazing, thanks for sharing your incredible story. =)

Anonymous said...

Very intelligent interview! Very relatable, even though I've never had the pleasure of going to new Orleans!

Nicole said...

Inspiring story! Amazing writing...as usual :)