Recovery and Looking Forward

I’ve removed serveral other posts that refer to New Orleans, Katrina, and recovery. Some New Orleans residents took offense at some of my comments, and I can’t say that I blame them. It’s their community, not mine, and they understand the situation far better than I ever could.

This post is my Wisconsin newspaper column from this week. I’m hopeful that it’s taken in the spirit in which it is intended.

Big Storms

by Peter Wallace, © 2008

Remember that terrible day back in 2005 when a big storm came and destroyed part of a community? That’s right. I’m talking about the tornadoes that hit Stoughton, Wisconsin and other nearby areas. Dozens of homes damaged or destroyed, and one man killed. It was awful.

Now, in 2008, the only visible reminders of that storm are some trees that are snapped off, and some barns and outbuildings that have yet to be rebuilt or hauled away. Mostly, normal has returned.

That same summer, on August 28th, Katrina hit the Gulf Coast region, and the worst case scenario actually happened. Alabama and Mississippi were badly hit, but the worst damage, in the form of floods, took place in New Orleans and surrounding parishes. Damage beyond description, and much loss of human life resulted.

Unlike the tornado damage in Wisconsin, the areas impacted in New Orleans are very, very far from being normal again. That’s also true about the lives and minds of many of those who survived.

I visited New Orleans last week for the fourth time since Katrina. Up until this trip, I’ve resisted the opportunities to tour the worst areas, in part because gawking at other people’s misery never seemed like the right thing to do, but this time it felt like enough time had passed, so I went. Somebody in the group I was with used the term “disaster marketing” to describe the many bus tours that are conducted through the worst affected Ninth Ward and Saint Bernard Parish.

What we saw was progress. No longer are houses which had floated off their foundations sitting on cars, or in trees. Power has been restored and most utilities are available, at least to some extent. Progress, but not enough.

In the Ninth Ward it seems that many homes have either been demolished or are in some stage of restoration. The same thing applies in Saint Bernard Parish nearby. Since there are no basements in those communities, concrete slabs are all that’s left of the demolished homes, and there are hundreds and hundreds of them.

Some stores are open again, and although several hospitals were destroyed, at least there is a medical clinic in a trailer in St. Bernards. And, due to some Herculean efforts, St. Bernard had a functioning school just a few months after it was submerged in 10 feet of water.

If you go to New Orleans for a conference or for fun, you’ll find it to be the way it has always been. Great food, great music, great history, great excess. You can pick which of those great qualities you want to take advantage of. If you don’t look around much beyond the tourist areas, you’d never know there had been a storm. If you talk to people, though, you’ll realize that it’s still in the forefront of most people’s minds and hearts. They are so grateful to the million-plus volunteers who have come to work there, and so disillusioned with government at all levels for their incompetence and lack of common sense.

New Orleans is really happy to see you, since tourism is such a big part of their economy. Whether you want to take the bus tour to see the destruction and the rebuilding is up to you. I’m glad I did, mostly because it helped me better understand the scope of things, and how much more help is needed.

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