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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

NOTES FROM THE BUS

It’s early Saturday morning and I stagger onto a bus with about 40 journalists, most of whom are hung over. I’m not hung over, but I certainly look and feel like it.

We’re going to tour New Orleans’s 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish. Both neighborhoods were devastated by floods following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I’m uneasy about the tour. I interviewed countless evacuees when I was working for a television station in Texarkana. Some of their stories haunt me to this day. Now I’m on vacation, and I’m concerned their misery is being used for my entertainment.

Perhaps I’m making too much of this. After all, I’m a journalist. We’ve got a license to rubberneck. We pull over at horrific traffic accidents and start taking pictures. We walk up to people who have just lost a loved one and ask, “How do you feel?” Why should this be any different? Well, technically, I’m off duty. So that’s different. I feel guilty, but not so guilty that it keeps me from getting on the bus… with a camera.

Our bus eases down Canal Street, and an oppressively cheery tour guide explains how high the water hit various buildings. There are spray paint markings on various buildings left by National Guard troops, but the neighborhoods seem only a little worse for the wear.
Then we hit the 9th Ward. It is mostly deserted. Thick stands of weeds conceal the concrete slabs where homes once stood. I’m later told this represents progress. Not too long ago, the area was dotted with debris piles larger than most houses. Those have been cleaned up, and in their place is nothing. Whole blocks have been completely cleared of homes. Others have one or two homes looking fresh and rebuilt, dropped into a sea of weeds.
St. Bernard Parish is in slightly better shape, but that’s not saying much. Small community stores are open, but the area’s big box retailers still stand derelict in the middle of giant, empty parking lots.We stop at a high school and the principal tells us harrowing stories about the days that followed the flooding. Later the directors of the St. Bernard Project tell us about the army of volunteers who have rebuilt more than 100 homes in the parish.

They all begin and end their remarks by thanking us for coming to their neighborhood to view the destruction and rebuilding process. They’re worried they’re being forgotten as newer natural disasters grab the popular attention.
Implicit in their welcome is the understanding that we will go out and tell the world what we’ve seen. But it’s hard to know just what to say. By all accounts, things are much better than they were even a few months ago. More than half the population has returned to New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish. The work of the volunteers in these communities is substantial and helps restore my confidence in mankind.

But underneath it all is a lingering sense of despair and disbelief. Three years later, and this is all we could fix? Really? The country that brought you the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift can’t get homes rebuilt on its own home turf? The country that can find 340 million dollars per day to fight the Iraq War can’t find the money to get New Orleans back on its feet?

I know it’s not that simple. Between private property rights and insurance and multiple layers of government, the scene I see outside of the bus as we head back to the hotel is a product of thousands of small individual choices that somehow add up to something larger. I know this. But that’s still no excuse for what’s happening, or more accurately, what’s not happening.

So what to make of this? What to say about this scene before me? There’s likely nothing I can add that hasn’t been stated more eloquently by the people who live in New Orleans and lived through the storm and its aftermath.

But I’ve still got an implicit promise to keep to the people I’ve seen and heard: the promise that I would write about them in whatever forum I write for (in my case, this little ol’ blog).

So I’ll post a few admittedly weak photos taken from a moving bus and pass along the message I’ve heard time and again down here. It’s a simple yet somewhat contradictory message.

First, New Orleans is back, please come visit. Second, New Orleans is nowhere close to being rebuilt and the trauma and sorrow continues three years later. Third, please don’t forget us.

After what I’ve seen, I doubt I ever will.

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