What Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor wanted the Easter Bunny to bring him.
South Mississippi Living 4/07

Friday, July 13, 2007

Beyond the 9th Ward

Beyond the 9th Ward
As I sit here in the town of Bay St. Louis, Miss., one of several tiny coastal beach towns that comprise ground zero for the worst part of the worst natural disaster in the nation, I feel conflicted. The New York Times has published a lengthy article titled Road to New Life After Katrina Is Closed to Many. The article zeroed in on the difficulty of returning home after Katrina. Again, as has been the modus operandi from the beginning, the focus is on New Orleans alone and specifically on residents in the 9th Ward. This is an important heart breaking story. And herein lies my conflict.

The road home after Katrina is equally difficult for those who don’t live in the lower 9th Ward. A few weeks ago, I attended my niece’s 13th birthday party held at Rock ‘n Bowl in New Orleans. How wonderful to see a bunch of 13 year girls so confident, delightful, and vibrant. Their parents dropped them off, stuck around a while and chatted, then left and returned to pick them up when the party ended. One of the mother’s I met was yakking with me about having to go to the laundry mat. In New Orleans, “to yak” means “to talk.” Let’s get some cross cultural adaptation going here, ok? ;) Back to the yakking itself, she was so lovely. She and her husband’s home in Lakeview had many feet of water in it after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ levees broke. Fortunately, they were able to buy a home a few blocks away that was untouched by the water.

Anyway, she was saying how awful it was for her because since the storm, she’s been having to go to the laundry mat to do the clothes. “At THIS age? Girl, you know, I didn’t work all my life to be going to a laundry mat to do my families clothes.” Oooooo. I told her that when I moved back to San Jose, California in 2002, one of my main criteria for renting was having a washer and dryer in my apartment. Period. I was not going to drag my clothes over to a laundry mat and sit there for hours waiting for a dryer, getting stuck using a dryer that hardly dried the clothes and ate up my coins like mad. And I’m only one person. I couldn’t imagine doing it for a family—mom, dad, and kids.

Now what does any of this have to do with a New York Times story about the 9th Ward and going home to New Orleans? My recent five part series focused on broadening the Katrina lens beyond it. The woman with whom I was speaking—I wish I could remember her name. It’s a terrible thing, I know, to not recall someone’s name. But, down here in the greater New Orleans area, which includes the very western part of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in particular the towns of Waveland and Bay St. Louis (my home town, remember), we don’t remember names that well. Often, we’ll say something along these lines. “You remember the son of Ms Josie who is married to that beautiful woman whose sister works at the bank? Well her mamma’s good looking brother . . .” Not recalling people’s names may be the reason everyone calls everyone honey, baby, dahlin’, shuga, and sweetie.

A few years back, Bob, a boss of mine was going to New Orleans for some kind of work thing. I told him of this delightful cultural verbal habit of ours. Bob came back complaining that I had forgotten to tell him about the mosquitoes and gnats. Poor thing, his neck was raw from the bites. But, he perked up when he said that I was right. Even the big burly man behind the counter of a sandwich shop where Bob had gone for lunch called him “hon.” That’s part of the charm of the area. We don’t care if you really are good looking or ugly, fat or thin, old or young, or your race, ethnicity, or religion. If you talk with the locals, you’ll be called one of the terms named above.

Now where was I on that laundry mat story. Oh yeah. So, the woman with whom I was speaking? She and her husband live in Lakeview, which is the affluent neighborhood that is on the exact opposite economic spectrum of the 9th Ward. One other thing. She and her family are African American.

The media has not sufficiently told the story of the incredible hardships of the road home for New Orleans residents outside of the 9th Ward. And their hardships and stories are also important to know to understand the barriers to a full, vibrant and quick recovery.

Residential Contractors, a Scarce Commodity
Contractors are very, very difficult to come by. Finding a Contractor Like California Dreamin’ tells my mom’s story of looking for contractors to repair her home. The Times-Picayune, the daily paper in New Orleans, ran a story titled A Clog in the Line which told of the incredible hardship in finding a plumber in New Orleans. Over 18 months ago, my own brother bought a brand new hot water heater that he needed to install in his home. He has paid plumbers to come out to do the work, they didn’t show. He has asked others for quotes and they tell him, “We don’t give quotes, we give bills.” What?!

Clearly, the terse delivery of the message is rude and carries an arrogance that is unhelpful in this Katrina area where doing everyday normal things—such as getting a quote for installing a hot water heater—is like walking through glue. Only after many, many months of enduring this ridiculous lack of business etiquette did he learn that what plumbers are finding is that when they go into do a simple, routine job, one pipe after the other begins to crumble and fall apart. And so giving an accurate quote becomes incredibly difficult for the plumbers.

If I recall correctly, and I’m not sure that I do, the reason for the pipes crumbling is because the salt in the water that flooded the homes corroded the pipes. Something like that. It’s all Katrina related. That’s no excuse for the rudeness. Since the licensing process takes a few years to obtain in Louisiana, plumbers from other parts of the country who would love to donate their talent are prohibited from doing so.

The courts, jails, and child support
Recently, a friend of mine was telling me that she finally hauled her ex into court for his failure to pay child support. Life is tough anyway here in Katrina Land. Raising kids without the financial assistance of their dad makes life tougher. So what happened once they got to court? Well, under pre-Katrina days, he would have been put in jail. However, we don’t have a jail to put him in. He got a free pass for a few months. Without the leverage of jail time, this takes the teeth out of child support enforcement for those situations that require it.

So what’s my point?
The ravages of post-Katrina life in New Orleans and here on the Gulf Coast are difficult to manage. The impact is broad, wide, and deep. The impact of insurance companies like State Farm, Allstate, and Nationwide that apparently deliberately fail to live up to their financial contract on the wind policies of their homeowner customers is keeping money out of the very hands that need it to rebuild, to return home. For those that have some money to repair their homes and businesses, getting good contractors is an exceedingly rare commodity. Without money flowing into the city and county coffers be it from FEMA or insurance companies or tax revenues, local and county governments cannot rebuild basic buildings such as schools to educate children and jails into which to incarcerate parents who are deliberately failing to live up to their financial obligations to their kids even when they do have these financial resources.

That’s my point. Reputable media outlets like the New York Times must tell the whole story of the challenges that post Katrina life presents. From a strictly political perspective, this is how we bring about recovery faster. The more varied the stories, the more the entire picture becomes clear, the greater the opportunity for momentum to build. That is what is needed most of all: momentum outside of the Katrina-ravaged region regarding everything from Insurance companies failing to pay out on legitimate claims . . . to governments not being able to build schools and jails . . . to homeowners not getting the plumbers and other contractors they need . . . to building low income housing in the 9th Ward and throughout the rest of the Katrina area. This is a broader lens through which to see what needs to be done and what can be done to speed up a vibrant recovery.

Today’s political hell raising activity targets the New York Times. Let’s call and write the paper thanking them for investing the time and money to write the story and devoting the enormous amount of space in the paper itself to raise awareness about the continuing challenges of getting home after Katrina. When we talk with or email the paper, we’ll be asking the editors to broaden their lens to include the plight of those in the rest of New Orleans, its surrounding Louisiana cities, and the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast. We’ll again thank them for providing coverage to something that is important to healing the wounds of Katrina and the pathetic circumstances that the insurance companies’ failure to properly fund and the White House failure to provide appropriate leadership has created.

In this way, we’ll praise their coverage and encourage more articles as we direct their attention to additional stories they could explore beyond the 9th Ward.

Go here for today's political hell raising activities.

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