I may be back from Spring Break, by my heart is in New Orleans. On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans around 4 a.m. As a result Lake Pontchartrain swelled up, and at 9 a.m., four hours after the hurricane had come and gone, the levees surrounding New Orleans broke open, unleashing floodwaters higher than 14 feet in some neighborhoods. Eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded. For one week our eyes were glued to the television, as we watched absolutely nothing happen. After that week, however, most of us moved on, and New Orleans became a thing of the past. Two and a half years later, the city still looks like it has barely been touched.
When the Federal Emergency Management Agency first came into the city, they drew large red X’s on all the homes they searched. In each quadrant of the X, they wrote who they were, what division they were from and how many dead bodies they found – if any. In total, over 1,500 people died, 45 percent white, 55 percent African American and other minorities. Today, as you drive through the city, those X’s as still there. Block after block, home after home, the X’s sit, waiting for their owner to come home, paint over them and start anew. Two and a half years later, the city looks as if the hurricane hit just several months ago.
As Americans, we like to think highly of our country and its possibilities. New Orleans is the elephant in the room that clearly shows us this country has failed to live up to its standards. Poor neighborhoods, middle-class neighborhoods, rich neighborhoods, white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods have all failed to be rebuilt. Hurricane Katrina did not discriminate, and neither did the government. Both equally screwed everyone in the city, with the middle-class white neighborhood of St. Bernard’s Parish flooding just as badly as the Lower Ninth Ward, and the recovery effort moving just as slow. With insurance rates skyrocketing higher than mortgages, insurance companies failing to pay up because it was “flood” damage, not “hurricane” damage that destroyed their homes and the government failing to rebuild stronger levees to protect the city, many just cannot afford to move back. As you drive through, you see tent cities set up under the freeways. Many used to have FEMA trailers, but those were taken away when they were found to contain asbestos. When the people of St. Bernard’s Parish asked a congressman for a $20 million loan so they can restart their fishing businesses, he replied by telling them to find a new job.
As for levee rebuilding, that too has failed. The old levees are still up, with new ones only built in the 53 areas that were breached. Those ones are only built to withstand a category three hurricane, and will be destroyed by anything larger. Further, they are built just as high as the old ones, with no concrete reinforcement on either side. Should the water topple the levees as they did in 2005, the water will erode the dirt on both sides of the wall, making the levees easy to breach.
The government failed, the insurance companies failed and the media failed. Two and a half years later, few are talking about New Orleans. This spring, thousands of college students from across the country, including myself and 14 other UCSB students from Hillel, went to help rebuild. According to the St. Bernard’s Project, they received more volunteers this year than ever before. Our government may have failed New Orleans, but many in our country have not forgotten about them. But most importantly, this is a city whose citizens need to be reminded we have not forgotten them. It is one of the most gratifying things you could ever do, bringing tears of joy and hope to all you speak to. New Orleans needs your help, and I hope we answer that call.