Unmasking Our Pain in New Orleans

By Lolis Eric Elie
Sunday, February 11, 2007

The rush begins approximately right now. Even as I write this, thousands of Americans are packing away their inhibitions and preparing to come to my city and go native. They will arrive in the French Quarter uninhibited, as they imagine we are. They will remove their clothes. They will empty their beer-filled guts onto each other's shoes. They will clown for hungry cameras and for journalists eager to capture New Orleans as some distant editor has imagined it. Invariably, the networks will set up their shots in the French Quarter, though none of the major parades and few of the emblematic Carnival activities take place there. Neither the journalists nor the revelers seem to care that our lives, local lives, are elsewhere.

For us, Mardi Gras is family time. We gather on our favorite corners to watch parades with parents and cousins and picnic lunches prepared by grandmothers (then) or bought from fast-food dispensaries (now). We don masks. We drink. We dance. We drink. We yell loudly. We drink. This we do, ever aware that the people on our right and on our left are the same people we will see during more sober times at work, school and church.

America would recognize us in family mode, but we may never be seen that way. Hurricane Katrina confirmed for now, and perhaps forever, the sense that New Orleans is a foreign place attached to the United States by geography, but distant from it in every meaningful way. We are more European, more African, less serious. And we lack the good sense God gave a goose. Why else would we raise our kids among girls gone wild in a hurricane magnet of a city that lies largely below sea level?

When Hurricane Katrina hit, our nation offered us sympathy. Millions of Americans accepted us into their cities. They sent 18-wheelers heavy with goodwill and provisions. Others came here, donned hazard suits and helped us. But I fear this compassion is wearing thin. It has been nearly 18 months. By now, the thinking goes, real Americans, self-reliant Americans, would have picked themselves up by their stiff upper lips and gotten on with life. They wouldn't be waiting for a government check. They would rebuild their homes and their lives with money and fortitude held in reserve.

My mother is a real American. Her difficulties have been minor compared with the setbacks suffered by others in our city. She's 72 years old. A decade ago, she moved into a new house she chose specifically because she thought it was on high, safe ground. She put her all into renovating and decorating it. On Aug. 29, 2005, it was inundated by four feet of water. Her blood pressure began to rise. Her borderline diabetes crept across the border. A pain developed in her left leg. Like many ailments these days, hers seemed stress induced.

From her sister's home in Dallas, she rebuilt. The first contractor she hired disappeared with the down payment. The first doctor said the back pain would go away. The first call to an insurance office put her in touch with a Ms. Bear. From her office somewhere in America, Ms. Bear insisted that my mother could just knock the insulation and roofing materials to the side and sleep in the filth of her waterlogged bed. That's what a Bear would do.

The second contractor was moving quickly among his various jobs, but slowly on my mother's house. Then he developed cancer and stopped moving much at all. (Was it his men who stole the ladder and the toilet and broke that glass table we'd carefully salvaged?) The second doctor recommended back surgery. The insurance company asked for more photos. Several doctors, two chiropractors, one surgery, a dozen letters and scores of phone calls later, my mother is back in her house. About a quarter of her neighbors have returned.

It's lonely there. My mother speaks to her friends long-distance.

Somehow, when people look at us and our city, they don't see my mother. They see the desperate brown faces at the Superdome or hear the otherly accented voices from St. Bernard Parish. They don't see the old man in the Lower Ninth Ward, gutting his house by day and sleeping in it by night because he has nowhere else to stay. They don't see the families cramped in trailers because they have nowhere else to live. They don't see the fishermen in Plaquemines Parish begging to get back to work. Those men need government help to move their boats from the land, where the floodwaters left them, back to the bayous, where they can again ply their trade. That's not the kind of work the Federal Emergency Management Agency is allowed to do.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the federal government did a terrible job. No doubt about that. Americans stranded on roofs. Americans without food and water. People in war-ravaged, dysfunctional nations looking at us on television saw that our country could be just as dysfunctional as their own. Domestic politics demanded that our misery be seen as the result either of Democratic Great Society programs or Republican social Darwinism. In fact, neither was apt.

Make no mistake -- the devastation in New Orleans and southern Louisiana was a government-enabled disaster. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed and built the levees and floodwalls that were supposed to protect us. The failure of these structures resulted in the devastation of our city. This is not the crank conspiracy theory of angry New Orleanians. This is the conclusion that the Corps reached in a 6,600-page report, released June 1.

Hurricane Katrina was no more than a Category 2 storm when it hit New Orleans. The levees and floodwalls were supposed to be able to withstand a Category 3 storm. The Corps acknowledged that the flood-control system was badly designed and badly built. "For the first time the corps has had to stand up and say we had a catastrophic failure with one of our projects," said Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, the commander of the Corps.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company