Losing Hope in Louisiana

A FEMA trailer city in Baker, La., on Oct. 3. Each of the 600 trailers will house as many as four people.
A FEMA trailer city in Baker, La., on Oct. 3. Each of the 600 trailers will house as many as four people. (By Shane Bevel -- Associated Press)

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By Jennifer Moses
Wednesday, October 12, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Nearly six weeks after Hurricane Katrina altered both the landscape of Louisiana and the national psyche, most Americans seem poised for the next news cycle: the fight over the new Supreme Court nominee looks to be especially juicy, as does the fun brewing down in Texas over Tom DeLay. But here in what has become, by default, Louisiana's most populous city, the hurricane just won't go away, and the initial excitement of being the state's primary triage center, and suddenly finding ourselves elevated from Nowhere on the Bayou to the center of MediaWorld, has long since worn off.

For one thing, there wasn't just one hurricane, there were two, and while the national media focused on Houston's horrific traffic jams, Hurricane Rita managed to wipe out most of southwest Louisiana, displace additional tens of thousands and cause huge disruptions in the state's already crippled economy. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, always on its toes, managed to confuse Iberia Parish, where hundreds of homes were wiped off the face of the earth, with Iberville Parish, which had minimal damage, and gave disaster relief to the latter while withholding it from the former. In some neighborhoods, garbage hasn't been picked up in weeks. Local energy rates, already among the highest in the nation, are about to go a lot higher.

Jobs are as rare as snow in August, and thanks to Washington's prevailing ethic of handing out the goodies only to chartered members of the Goodies Club, barely a trickle of cleanup jobs are going to Louisiana businesses or Louisiana workers, and those few that are magically trickling down into the local economy are grossly underpaid. This because the president suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires that federal contractors pay workers prevailing wages on federally funded projects. The Louisiana State University system, which includes not only the state university but also three public hospitals, is about to lay off 5,000 more workers. Trailer parks intended to house the displaced are being set up in overstrained and underserviced areas that all happen to be -- surprise! -- majority black, while Baton Rouge's solid, if old and often abandoned housing stock, is left to rot. Meanwhile, the governor flails around, her heart in the right place and her hand in a wallet stuffed with IOUs. Happy fall, y'all.

What's the good news? Actually, there is some, but it's as amorphous as it is sad, having to do with the slow erosion of our shared national fantasy of an endless party, our waking up with a bad hangover, only to find that the living room is cluttered with empty bottles and overflowing ashtrays. Even in Louisiana, where the prevailing culture is almost outrageously laid-back and endlessly forgiving, people are getting angry.

But if you go down to the shelters, wait in one of the blocks-long social services lines, or drive out to any of the many churches where evacuees sleep in pews, you won't hear people talking much about the bursting of the myth of compassionate conservatism. Instead, what you hear in the giant River Center downtown, where some 1,000 evacuees are still living on fold-out canvas cots, is that there isn't enough underwear. Nor are there laundry facilities. Nor is there any kind of FEMA presence, FEMA having set up elsewhere. You'll hear mothers complain that a shelter is no place to school -- let alone raise -- a child. And you'll hear one horror story after another about how FEMA has denied evacuees any financial assistance, accused applicants of fraud, lost their case numbers or given a family's assistance to estranged ex-husbands who have long since moved to faraway states. The financial assistance the evacuees are waiting on is $2,000, a sum that would last me approximately five minutes. In the meantime, food, shelter and clothing are being provided not by the kindly hand of Uncle Sam but by the courtesy of the Red Cross.

Don't get me wrong: It's not that the Feds aren't here at all. Helicopters swoop overhead, young men in military fatigues -- many of them too young to shave -- patrol the shelters and the streets, and Gen. Russel L. Honore (the "Ragin' Cajun" from Lakeland, La.) continues to kick butt. It's just that the federal government, having apparently lost its ability to govern, has gladly allowed private organizations, and especially the churches, to shoulder most of the burden of care, granting Jesus primary responsibility for clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. But even Jesus is beginning to feel the strain. You can see it in the eyes of the faithful, as they line up for handouts at Bethany World Prayer Center or Istrouma Baptist Church. You can see it in the exhausted faces of children enrolled in the "second shift" of already dysfunctional, crowded schools. You can even see it on the roads, where ordinarily placid drivers, faced with hours-long commutes, morph into desperate maniacs.

No one knows what's to become of us. And, sure, folks are still patriotic, flying their American flags and displaying pro-American bumper stickers on their cars. But the whole state is in mourning for the place we once were, silently praying that we won't be washed away.

Jennifer Moses is a writer who grew up in McLean and has lived in Baton Rouge for 10 years.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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