Thursday, July 27, 2006

Thoughts on New Orleans...

I spent a week in New Orleans just recently for a conference and had the opportunity to take a tour of the city to see how recovery efforts have progressed following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last fall. Several of us from my museum were able to ride with a professor from the University of New Orleans (who still lives in a FEMA trailer) and hear firsthand about life before, during, and since the hurricanes. I wanted to share some pictures that my boss, Jan Caldwell, took. Unfortunately, seeing the city through photographs and television does not even come close to how the city looks in person - the enormity of the devastation simply cannot be conveyed realistically through two-dimensional media. At first, I was reluctant to go on the "hurricane tour" - it seemed too voyeuristic and exploitative to me, but many of the people at the conference from New Orleans really encouraged visitors to go see the neighborhoods for themselves. I think they feel forgotten and put out of everyone's minds. After seeing everything, I was simply at a loss as to what I could do to help the situation, but I realized that I can start by reminding the people that I know that the situation is still pretty tragic, but not necessarily without hope.

A few of my thoughts:

- Before my visit and from the standpoint of a biologist, I was appalled that the city would even consider attempting to rebuild in the flood zone. I still have many concerns about rebuilding efforts, but now I have a much better appreciation for the cultural importance of the area and its ties to the river and surrounding lands. I am not sure what the best solution will be to rebuild the city, but I do understand that many New Orleanians are doing everything they can to save their city and its culture, and I respect that.

- I am completely mortified at what little has been done to help the people. I don't feel that governments exist to give handouts, but I do feel that one of the primary functions of government is to serve the people. During and following a natural disaster, the government (local, state, and federal) should help with facilitation and coordination of rescue and recovery efforts, as well continue to be involved with rebuilding efforts. I expected the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana to be broke, from economic losses, as well as from the obvious costs involved with dealing with the disasters, and according to many locals, this appears to be the case. What I didn't expect to hear was that the primary "presence" the federal government seemed to have for the disaster was through FEMA. Many of the people who I talked with or heard discussing the hurricanes were frustrated about insurance companies (e.g., many insurance claims have yet to be paid because the "wind" or "water" dilemma, where insurance companies are trying to deny claims because certain damage scenarios are not covered, but with the hurricane, damage ensued as a result of many causes, and it is almost impossible to tease apart root causes). People are concerned about skyrocketing building costs (the Lowes parking lot was packed!) and continue to be annoyed with the hassles involved with getting FEMA trailers (subcontractors set them up for $17000-$35000...what a deal!). Based upon numerous examples and discussions I heard from local people, I now believe that many in the private sector are taking advantage of this situation to a degree that is criminal, and because of this, I feel that the government should be stepping in to help negotiate these issues.

- Finally, there are some incredibly caring individuals and organizations that have stepped up to help the people who have been affected by these disasters. They've helped tremendously, but there is too much that needs to be done to rely on the generosity of these people alone.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. I wish there were a simple solution for all of the issues involved with this disaster, but there obviously is not. My thoughts in sending this email to you is to simply ask you not to forget about these people in this city and also to ask you to think to yourself what you might hope for or expect should you ever find yourself in a situation similar to what these people encountered. I think of myself as pretty independent, but there definitely are limits to what I can and cannot do by myself (e.g., getting utilities turned on, ensuring clean drinking water), and I realize that I rely on society for many things that I take for granted. Since my visit to New Orleans two weeks ago, I can honestly say that I have spent a good deal of time thinking about what I can do - surprisingly, I think there is plenty to do, from voting for a government that will serve its people well on all levels, to staying informed on issues, to participating in well-researched charitable causes...alright, I've said enough.


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