Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Some Things We Should Never Forget

We love to joke down here. We love to take situations that would normally be stressful, uncomfortable, and downright depressing and laugh the Hell out of them. I think that's one of the strongest things about the people of New Orleans; we have an amazing sense of humor that gets us through the worst moments in our lives. In a sense, it also somewhat translates into a lassiez fare attitude towards things that should be taken very seriously. We do tend to get so wrapped up in laughing at our problems that it takes a while for the joke to grow old before we actually pick up and do something about it, which is why New Orleanians, while we do complain occassionally, are generally fairly content to be mildly behind the times on things that other cities stress themselves into convulsions about. So without further ado, yes... I'm going to talk about hurricanes. At this point, I can almost hear other New Orleanians groan and roll their eyes, and I know the feeling. Whenever I see anything about Katrina or hurricanes in general and their effect on New Orleans, I do the exact same thing. I hate TV shows and mini-series and movies and anything at all that talks about Katrina and its after-effects on the city. K-Ville was just brutal, and honestly I watched all of 5 minutes of Treme. As soon as they started on about the storm, I was like "ok... CLICK." One of the things that I think frustrates New Orleanians so much about storm talk is that the media's attitude towards hurricanes is so vastly different than our own. They go insane on the doom and gloom, giving people all over the world the impression that we are so insanely screwed when it comes to storms that we shouldn't even live here in the first place. In reality, while there were IMMENSE failures in our protection system during Katrina, those type of failures don't happen on a daily basis. Yes, they could be a HELL of a lot better, but the major events that these systems are meant to protect against don't really happen every other weekend. Also, since Katrina, the attitude towards hurricanes has deepened TREMENDOUSLY. People actually do evacuate and take precautions now if there does happen to be a storm heading our way. This was NOT the general attitude before Katrina. When I was younger, it was like "Woohoo!! Hurricane time!!" Honestly, hurricanes were fun. We got out of school for a day or two. The lights would go out for maybe a day or two, which would mean we would all play boardgames or cards by candlelight. The city would come by and pick up whatever branches happened to topple, and life would resume fairly quickly. People would actually have parties during hurricanes. And give this city 10 - 15 years without any real storms, and I guarantee, this mindset will seep right back in. That's one of the reasons I'm writing this right now, because I know how the pendulum (albeit, extremely slowly) swings here, and I believe that there are some things that we should never forget about the hurricane that locals now simply refer to as "the storm."
    I get extremely angry when I watch media coverage from Katrina, and it's because the story that was painted for the general public was 180 degrees from what actually. Yes, the levees failed. Yes, there was hideous damage from the rage of Mother Nature, but that was nothing to the damage that was caused by human beings, and Mother Nature's damage could have been taken care of much quicker, if the government was overwhelmed by dealing with the human damage. I say "human", but that's a term that I will use very loosely. Let me point out that I love my city with every fiber of my soul, but there is a caliber of people here that I would not categorize as anywhere near human. These people have been taught to take and take and take, and they've been taught that that's alright. It's ok if you didn't earn it, need it, or even rightfully pay for it. If you want it, it's yours, and there's no need to work or better yourself or create anything beautiful or helpful to anyone else in the world because compassion just doesn't matter. Before the storm, my husband and I owned a coffee shop/theatre in New Orleans' Warehouse District, one block from the Convention Center. We had both gone to college at Loyola in New Orleans for theatre so we were living our dream. True Brew had a small 100 seat theatre as well as a cabaret stage in the coffee shop where stand-up comics and beat poets would perform. When the storm was approaching, we treated it with a lot of concern because I was 7 months pregnant for our son. We were running a show that was selling out like crazy. Once the city started talking about evacuating, which was on the previous Thursday, we did start to have some people calling to cancel their tickets, but we had even more people calling to ask us, "Hey, is anybody cancelling their tickets because of the hurricane because we want to come see the show." When we saw that the local government was getting so anxious, we announced that we were cancelling our Sunday performance, and people were cursing us out for it! The evacuation was called, but we didn't leave before getting the Saturday night box office done. My husband told the cast, "Have a great show, y'all. My wife and I are gonna spend the weekend in Little Rock. I'll see you on Thursday." Then we left, driving straight through the night to Little Rock, listening to Mardi Gras music to keep us awake, and then we sat in a Hampton Inn for over a week and watched the life we'd built unravel. We were glued to the TV. We also had our laptop open because our local news, Channel 4, kept streaming the local news online. CNN had set up their cameras on the neutral ground in front of the Convention Center, so we could see the front of True Brew whenever they would pan the camera around. We heard about the levees breaking, but our place never flooded. The Convention Center is right next to the River, and the area next to the River, which is where the French Quarter, the house we were living in, and True Brew are so we knew they hadn't been flooded, but we had family who were stuck at hospitals that had been flooded so we were anxious and listening for any news about them. Then, the news coverage turned a lot different. Suddenly, there were people packing the Convention Center. They showed people lining the streets allegedly starving and dehydrated all around True Brew, and word was starting to pour in from friends and acquaitences who had stayed that anarchy was breaking out. Thugs were looting and shooting at policemen. People were being killed in gunfights. A friend of ours who was working at the now abandoned Charity Hospital told us stories about how they were trying to evacuate dying patients out of the hospital in helicopters and there were these horrible people shooting up at the helicopters. We watched and watched as all of this unfolded. I was terrified. I was in my third trimester, and we had to start looking around trying to figure out where on Earth we could have the baby if we weren't able to go back home. We watched and watched until the Thursday after, the day we had told our cast that we would see them again. That's the day we saw that the doors to True Brew had been broken open. We had believed the media's story that these people were starving and thirsty and there was a part of us that said, "Oh thank God! We have food and water all right there. I hope there was enough to help some people." That's what kept us from going mad at first, but then after several days, friends of ours who were with the police and were able to get to True Brew started to tell us about what had really happened. They told us that they had trashed our place, that there was all this damage. They told us about all the stuff that they had stolen, and we started noticing on the news that some of the people  by the Convention Center that they were interviewing were doing the interview while sitting in our chairs, and we saw that some of our chairs had been converted to toilets. We even saw a pair of our cooking scissors sticking out of a covered body on Convention Center Boulevard. This was barely scratching the surface. We left Little Rock and moved to my grandmother's house which is right outside Baton Rouge so that we could be close, and my husband could try and get in and clean up the place so that we could get it back up and running as fast as possible. Once my husband was allowed to get back, WEEKS after the storm, we saw the full extent of what had happened to True Brew. All the alcohol was gone. They had taken a newspaper dispenser and ripped the lock off the door and then thrown it through to get in. The ATM and video poker machines looked like they had been ripped apart by a rabid tiger. They were absolutely destroyed. The same for our safe and filing cabinets. But that was not the worst. There were feces everywhere. All over the floor, on my husband's desk. They had taken out the pots, pans, and coffee pots from behind the counter and defecated in them. They had even put feces on doilies and left them on display on our countertops. As far as our hope that hungry/thirsty people had made use of our food, that was a miserable discovery. We threw away a freezer and at least two fridges worth of food that had not been touched. There were cases of water unopened and untouched in our store room. Actually, there was one piece of fruit that was used. There was a drink at the end of the bar that had a twist of lime in it. The most gruesome discoveries were thankfully removed before my husband had got in, but the search crew marking on the door clearly identified that there had been bodies inside at one point. There was blood and dirty underwear in the bathrooms and in the video poker booth. Thankfully, we discovered afterwards that our insurance covered "riots and civil unrest", which is the title that our claim was filed under. Storm damage? None. But the insurance only got us so far. We had to hire specialized crews to make sure the place was sanitary again before we reopened, and we did reopen, but after many pitiful months, we closed shop. The audiences were gone. The Convention Center wasn't booking. Owners after us have had several other restaurants in True Brew's place, but the theatre was annexed by another restaurant as additional dining space. Thankfully, my dad asked my husband to help his business, which is Jefferson parish, which stayed relatively safe from the anarchy in New Orleans, and we were able to create a new life for ourselves because of that, but we still have a lot of sadness and anger over the way our dream was looted out of existence.
     When the media revisits Katrina, it's usually images of flooded out streets and people stuck on rooftops that are most often re-aired, but that was hardly the worst of the damage that was done in this city. The greatest damage was to the tenuous trust between the different peoples of this city. It's not about rich vs. poor. It's about people with humanity vs. those who have been taught not to have any. The saddest part about all of this was that there were so many people who abused the situation that the people who truly did need the help couldn't get it because the people in charge were too busy trying to return order to actually have time to really help anyone. My mother-in-law's friend was staying at a hotel downtown with her husband. A day or two after the storm, her husband had a heart attack. He died because he couldn't get to a hospital in time. The National Guardsmen who were trying to take him were being shot at as they were trying to save him. Homes can be rebuilt. Trees and powerlines can be cleared away, but the lives that were lost because of the disintegration of civilization can never be regained. When they count the number killed in Katrina, those "don't count as storm victims." But they were.