Spring Break in New Orleans

I recently returned from a spring break trip to New Orleans with my teenage son. We made a road trip adventure out of our journey, going to various places which will be covered in other writings. The purpose of our trip was to join other boys from his DeMolay chapter for a tournament. DeMolay is a Masonic fraternity for teenage boys and young men, and my son has benefited greatly from it, particularly in the area of conducting a meeting and public speaking. We weren’t the only visitors to New Orleans within the past few weeks – many students and volunteer groups continue to come to assist with the clean up.

Driving into New Orleans along I-10, it was impossible to escape the lasting damage of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf coast August 29, almost 7months ago. Many homes are in disrepair, and a sea of blue roofs stretches well beyond the highway. On some buildings which appear abandoned, you can see the holes in the roof which people cut to wait above the flood waters for rescue by boat or helicopter. It is still very much a city coping with unprecedented trauma and the aftermath.

So many of the people are gone, and their return is uncertain. Whole communities are literally washed away. There is a critical need for skilled labor. FEMA trailers are only now being delivered to many in need of housing – we saw them rolling along the highway. So much is uncertain, and yet, there is a very intense need for people to believe their city, their community, their neighborhood, their parish, is “back”. There is a lot of effort going into welcoming people back, encouraging them to come back. Seven months later, the effect of unprecedented traumatic disruption in so many people’s lives is still plainly visible. It seemed to me that a lot of the residents I met are still walking around in shock. Each new day brings a new surprise, not always pleasant. 10 weeks before the start of another hurricane season, the most feared question is “OK, what’s next?”

Having a functional school system is critical to rebuilding a community so that families can come back. Some New Orleans citizens were separated from their children during the rescue operations and subsequent evacuations. Children have suffered trauma upon trauma, and desperately need a stable school environment if they are to return.

A few schools have been open for all the children who remain, and a few more will open this week. Still others are scheduled to open in 2007, and others in 2008. Given the mammoth scale of this clean up, and the importance of schools as a stabilizing force in any community, I was surprised by an incident that occurred recently as volunteers were coming to assist in restoring the city during their spring break.

Volunteers from a group called “Common Ground” were told to stop clearing items from a school because the insurance company and FEMA had not yet documented the items. This group had photographed items, recorded serial numbers on appliances, computers, and equipment. But they were told to stop. Now, I understand the importance of this documentation – I survived a house fire and I know how important this process is. But this is a school, seven months after the initial disaster. And this is a volunteer group which has time and human beings willing to work now.

There appears to be no timetable for the cleaning of this school, which is set to reopen in 2008. There is no schedule for when FEMA or the insurer will view the items to be discarded. One volunteer wondered if all the furniture, machinery, papers, equipment, is to rot until then?

I saw a lot of effort throughout New Orleans, but not a whole lot of coordination. The official tourist guides are pre-hurricane, but the visitor does not realize that until you go to find attractions that are no longer there, or closed for renovation. Street signs are still not totally in place, and some storefronts were clearly boarded up after looting. The day I left, people were wandering into the lobby of my hotel looking for free FEMA cell phones. Apparently they got a letter from FEMA telling them what corner to go to – but not what store or office. There is still a great deal of concern about where to house people if they are to return. Public access cable channels might just as well be renamed Katrinavision – hearings, public meetings, speeches, are all about housing and rebuilding after this disaster.

The restaurants are not full as they once were. Bourbon street is as lively as ever, but much of the routine cultural life of the French quarter is missing. This is because the people are missing. Missing people will not come home without stable schools in which to anchor their children after a year of chaos.

Seven months after the disaster, I don’t think it is too much to ask for efforts to be coordinated between FEMA, insurers, schools, and volunteers so that the cleanup is efficient, and damage is assessed for safety of students before the timeline hits a crisis. We are not talking yet about building a new school – just discarding the contents of one that was ruined by the hurricane. After 7 months, perhaps it is too much to expect that damaged schools have been cleaned. But after 7 months, the process for doing so while incorporating the help of available volunteers should be very much in place – and so should the answers to any questions about that process. Maybe the schools can’t be ready just yet, but a well known public timetable of when they will be ready and what is being done to make them ready is long overdue. The children affected by this disaster deserve an honest answer, at the very least.