Post-Katrina Reflections

It is difficult to know where to begin; the catastrophe is of huge proportions and ranges from the most intimate to the regional—and, in time, from the frightening moments of August 2005 to more than a year that has passed since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. In Louisiana alone, Hurricane Katrina left nearly 1,500 people dead, 200 missing and presumed dead, and 200,000 people homeless; it impacted 71,000 businesses and cost 300,000 jobs. The damage estimate as of May 2006 was $22 billion just in Louisiana. The hurricane impacted over 108,000 square miles, almost two and a half times the area of Pennsylvania. This was a huge natural disaster. In New Orleans alone, 70 percent of the tree canopy was destroyed. If the levees protecting New Orleans had held, the lives lost and the assessed damage costs would have been but a fraction of the above. In fact, had the levees not failed catastrophically, the city overall would look much as tourists see it, the "sliver by the river," the 20 percent that suffered only downed trees and damaged roofs.

According to the July 2006 Hurricane Katrina Index, published monthly by the Brookings Institution, and the Louisiana State University Hurricane Impact Atlas, in a city where 80 percent of its housing stock flooded and 50 percent (over 105,000 units) were substantially damaged, rents have increased 39 percent. Utility rates have increased 30 percent and are threatening to go up to 50 percent. Just five of the 13 public libraries, 21 percent of the public schools, and 55 percent of the area hospitals are open. Only 17 percent of buses are operating, on 49 percent of the pre-Katrina routes. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate reached 7.2 percent in June. Of a pre-Katrina population of 463,000, estimates now place the city’s population at about 200,000, of which as many as 80,000 may be undocumented workers. Only 21 percent of the pre-Katrina childcare facilities have opened. Without schools, homes, or childcare, workers cannot come home to help rebuild the city.

Despite the devastation, it is still very important that people continue to visit us, to witness the pain as well as the progress and bring that information home to their friends and congresspeople. The 20 percent of the city that was relatively unharmed is bustling and ready to receive you. Come experience our unique culture, support our local businesses, meet us, and talk to our neighbors.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Friends in the region have had three main concerns: to find one another and reconstruct our meeting; to help others find us and reconstruct our connections with Friends nationally; and to evaluate how we saw and continue to see our role in the reconstruction of our city.

Friends Meeting of New Orleans is and has always been a relatively small meeting. Founded over 50 years ago, its membership has rarely numbered more than 12 to 15 over the decades, but attenders frequently find their way to our doors. The meeting met for many years in Friends’ homes. We have been in our present quarters in the education annex of the Carrollton United Methodist Church for six years.

Though we are a fairly close-knit family, because of our small size, we rarely cross paths outside of meeting. We gather from the far corners of the city, and even the region, at our modest space on the second floor. We try to exchange visits with Baton Rouge Meeting, 60 miles away, on fifth First Days. Every October, some of us manage to attend Bayou Quarterly Meeting in Lake Charles, about a three-hour drive from New Orleans, along with Baton Rouge Meeting and the much larger Houston Live Oak Meeting. At Easter-time, fewer of us manage to get to South Central Yearly Meeting, which meets outside of Waco, Texas.

Yet it was just these tenuous connections that brought us back together: first virtually, then physically. Those who could, made their way to Baton Rouge for Bayou Quarterly Meeting on the second weekend of October 2005, and then, when reentry to the city was permitted, back to our home meeting space in New Orleans the following weekend. Though few of us were back in our homes, we gathered for attentive worship with very full hearts.

Of our 13 current members, few escaped even relatively unscathed. We welcomed our newest member, Rogan Obidiah Jupiter Schenck, born to member Ben Schenck and Ama Rogan on October 19, 2005, in Texas. Their house suffered severe roof damage, and with the new baby it was some months before they could return. Our clerk experienced significant roof damage as well, and he has health problems that may force him to leave the city—because the healthcare system here is so, well, unhealthy. One member’s home took a hit on the ground level, but she was able to move into the upper story by Christmas. She lost her job, however, as principal of one of the top-performing schools in the city—her school was a block from one of the breaches and took in ten feet of water. She has only recently been hired back as a teacher.

One member stayed in the city during Katrina because she worked in the health department, and volunteered to tend to the fragile and disabled housed in the Superdome, then cared for them as they eventually were being evacuated. She spoke movingly at South Central Yearly Meeting of her experiences in that terrible week when no help was to be found. Her house was badly damaged by five feet of standing water, and she has relocated to Dallas, Texas, finding F/friends and comfort there.

One of our elderly members evacuated to stay with her family in Mobile, Alabama, where she continues to reside. Another elderly member, a founder of our meeting, lived in a condo apartment in one of the suburbs; her apartment was severely wind-damaged and she lost all of her belongings. She has had to move, though she remains in the area. The rest of us are slowly putting our homes and families back together where we used to be. Meanwhile, we have addressed the problem of post-disaster communication by creating and circulating an emergency contacts list amongst ourselves.

We will be forever grateful to the clerk of Baton Rouge Friends Meeting, Pam Arnold, who—by September 4, less than a week after the disaster—had contacted as many as half of our members and frequent attenders. She continues to field the countless inquiries of concerned Friends across the country from New Paltz, N.Y., and Tallahassee, Fla., to Honolulu, Hawaii. She worked with South Central Yearly Meeting to set up a virtual bulletin board for us, and accepted donations to establish the Baton Rouge Friends Katrina Fund. Over $20,000 was collected and dispersed to address the needs of Friends in New Orleans and the region, helping to make us whole and bring us back to pre-Katrina status. Funds have been given directly to our meeting as well, and following a worship sharing session we determined that they would be used primarily for community projects and for people outside of our meeting.

The expressions of concern and comfort have been overwhelming. Over the past months, our small meeting has swelled to two or three times its usual size, with volunteers visiting us through Intermountain Yearly Meeting, who were helping to repair a Native American community in Terrebonne Parish; other Friends volunteering with groups or on their own; and volunteers from local efforts such as Common Ground. We were extremely gratified to represent Friends Meeting of Washington, D.C., by presenting their check for $16,000 to the New Orleans Public Library to help open a branch in the 9th Ward. At the opening ceremony, local residents were present not only to celebrate, but to check out books and use Internet services. Many still have spotty electric and phone service, or none at all, so these links—and an air-conditioned respite—are vital for their recovery.

Still another meeting, Clear Creek, in McNabb, Ill., has adopted the Westwego Public Library, supplying the severely damaged facility with new children’s books and materials and sponsoring its summer reading program. Little Rock (Ark.) Meeting has launched a "bunk bed" project to construct hundreds of beds for families throughout the region. Meanwhile, scores of individuals, some sponsored by their meetings, have arrived over the past year to help in the ongoing relief effort. It is an incredible and affirming representation of Quaker values and spirit that affords the Light to shine anew for many in this devastated region.

American Friends Service Committee allotted $10,000 of the more than $2 million that it collected to projects that we targeted as worthy and having the greatest impact. Through this, our meeting was able to direct $4,000 to Common Ground, which was the first organization on the scene with doctors and medical assistance—even before the Red Cross; and $2,000 each in matching funds to the following: Israelite Baptist Church, for a psychiatric social worker; Mary Queen of Vietnam for a large generator (the community lacked any electric service for months); and UNITY for the Homeless of Greater New Orleans to match a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant for housing counseling. AFSC’s General Secretary for U.S. Regions Madeline Haggans and Southeast Regional Office Director Betti Knott brought the checks to New Orleans, toured the city, and met with us and with the recipients.

Now, more than a year later, there are still many unanswered questions: How will our neighbors come home? How will they be afforded the protection of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which calls for the resettlement into their homes of all displaced people, including the residents of public housing, who have literally been locked out? Will a flood protection system be built to withstand a Category Five hurricane?

Reconstruction will only work if the coastal wetlands and barrier islands are restored. Will home insurance companies withdraw from the state altogether, preventing the rebuilding of homes? Will there be the political will to address these and other problems of critical national importance? There’s much legislative work to be done on such issues.

Despite all our hard work and the billions of federal dollars in the pipeline, we become discouraged and then angry when faced with well-wishers, even among Friends, who feel the city should be left to the sea. When an overhead cement panel in the Boston "Big Dig" underground highway recently failed and killed a woman, the spot was declared a crime scene. Yet nearly 1,500 people have died as a result of poor levee design and construction by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and not one person has been fired or demoted. When tens of thousands of souls begged for food and water at the Morial Convention Center and Louisiana Superdome, no help came for nearly a week, and instead, those responsible for the debacle were praised.

Here are more questions: If gasoline is expensive now, what will happen when the Louisiana oil, gas, and petrochemical industries are shut down or crippled? Do people in Maine realize that much of their natural gas comes from Plaquemines Parish, the toe of the Louisiana boot? What of the billions of dollars in imports and exports that move through the port of New Orleans? What of the 27 percent of the U.S. seafood industry to which Louisiana is home? How will the coastlines of Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and New York be protected?

Meanwhile, what is spent on the war in Iraq in six months could fully restore the entire coastline and barrier islands of Louisiana in five to ten years. What is spent in Iraq in two to three months could build a flood protection system for New Orleans equal to that of the Netherlands, whose seaside nation lies as much as 22 feet below sea level. What will people say when they lose their homes and communities to earthquakes, wildfires, floods, and other calamities? Will they find it easy to listen to their neighbors who say, "You’re not safe, so leave"? Is it even practical?

A local public service announcement aired on TV always brings tears to my eyes:

This is our heart, this is our home, this is our life, Louisiana,
This is our day, come what may,
This is our home.

This is our home. The situation is beginning to stabilize, but it is still quite desperate; people are still suffering and will for years to come in this worst natural disaster in the history of our nation. Who will help us reclaim and rebuild our home, and see us as they see themselves?

Dorian Hastings

Dorian Hastings, a member and recording clerk of Friends Meeting of New Orleans (La.), is a former community analyst with the City of New Orleans and a newly appointed project director for a New Orleans neighborhood association. In 2004, she finished her dissertation on the history of planning and neighborhood development in New Orleans.