Friday, July 22, 2016

Rescued but stranded


This memorial art installation greets you at as you enter the Beyond Katrina exhibit at The Presbytere in New Orleans. The bottles represent the dead. The blue hands represent the many helpers. The sense of floating you get standing beneath is disorienting, which I think is the point. So much about Katrina was about being un-tethered--to one's home, family, and culture. No one expected to not return home after the storm. 

The bottles outnumber the hands, to be sure. The storm claimed many lives. But the hands are part of the story. Groups from near and far came to help in the recovery effort after Katrina. It's part of the beauty of what the city is now becoming--a resurrection story. 

But there's another side to the story, too. Many people were rescued in the immediate aftermath of the storm only to be left stranded in places with no food or water. Those rescued were better off on dry land, of course, but they had no way to take the next steps in making a new life. They struggled to meet basic needs. It literally came down to where you got dropped off after your rescue and how adept you were at navigating a confusing, dangerous, and rapidly changing relief situation.

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 I vividly remember sitting on my couch in Michigan, holding my new baby and weeping at the footage I was seeing on TV of the aftermath of Katrina. This was happening in America? I was an anxious mess for all the mothers there trying to feed, diaper, and comfort their babies without any means to do so. I was home that September day because I had opted not to work that school year so I could stay home with Madeline. And even though I had to work part-time in the evenings to help make up for my lost income, I had family to provide care for my daughter. Perhaps it was then that I began to realized my privilege.

In contrast is the story of my Uber driver who took me from the airport in New Orleans to the campus of Tulane University a few weeks ago. I asked her about her Katrina experience. She shared that she and her husband got out of their home in the 9th ward even before the mandatory evacuation was ordered, sending her small child in a car with her parents, hoping to catch up with them a few hours later. She didn't see her child again for two weeks. She was in the Superdome when the storm hit. 

In the chaos that followed, she and her husband relocated to Houston and waited to be reunited with their child. Her second son was born in Houston a year later. The family barely scraped by. She hated it there. She eventually made her way back to the 9th ward and rebuilt her mother's house, which had been willed to her after her mother's death a few months before Katrina. Her marriage didn't last and her oldest child is again not with her, instead living with his father farther north in Louisiana. 

She's trying to leave NOLA for good, hoping to return to Houston and find a job with the new degree she earned in social work, inspired by the many helpers she witnessed after the storm. She drives for Uber to help pay her bills while she figures out how to navigate finding a place to live, schools for her son, a job, and a support network far from home.

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As many wake up to the realities of racial injustice and inequality in the United States, are we really surprised at what happened after Katrina? That an entire population of largely poor and African Americans was left to suffer and in some cases die because of lack of resources? Are we really comfortable blaming the victims, as is often the case when we don't know who else to blame?

My visit to New Orleans helped me understand that when we rescue in the short term we might strand future generations if we fail to identify the things that caused the disaster in the first place and work to fix them. But our current political climate has shown me that many in our country are not ready to get down to the bottom of our problems, opting instead for divisive words in shiny gold letters. 

Can we be the helper hands? When we see institutional and economic racism that prevents people from getting ahead, do we speak up? When poor schools, lack of access to healthy food, polluted air, and poisoned water threaten any of us, they threaten all of us. We are stranding ourselves and our future.

We can use our voices and our votes. We can educate ourselves on social justice issues. We can listen. We can lament. We can pray. But we also must act. 

Here's an example of what happens when our compassion leads us to action:




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