Thoughts from New Orleans

How is it, I wondered, that we could leave a city in such utter despair and destruction – and for so long? This past week, I traveled to New Orleans for a Hands On Network conference and took two hours to quietly ride through the city. Not too long ago the phrase “shock and awe” was used so cavalierly to describe our military prowess in Iraq; in New Orleans (and perhaps other parts of the Gulf Coast) that phrase applies, too, but only to describe what remains. What I came to know through news accounts failed to prepare me for what I encountered in person. In some areas, the destruction goes on for block after block. Many homes are about to literally fall down. Boards have been ripped off their frames; windows and doors are gone. Parts of New Orleans are unfathomable ghost towns. Many owners have put their homes up for sale; but who among us would buy these homes?

On occasion you will find a rebuilt house amid the rubble. From time to time, I could see three or four kids playing in the street; where did these kids live? I also wondered what it would mean for people to come back to these neighborhoods. Can you imagine living in the only rebuilt house on an entire street among deserted blocks – for how long could anyone withstand that sense of isolation and despair and loneliness?

Some schools are still shut down, left crumbling, disserted, overrun by trash or weeds. Other schools seemed half open, with the lights ablaze in some dismal- looking classrooms, while other parts of the building appeared cordoned off, as if they had a giant tourniquet to forestall the spread of disease.

Then there are the infamous “FEMA trailers.” Entire parking lots filled with small white trailers, one lined up right after the other, with just enough room for people to park their car or truck in front, with no room for kids to play, spaced out exactly for efficiency in order to squeeze each one in. I drove past a liquor store on the highway with bright neon signs; there, too, were trailers.

When I first saw the trailers all lined up, you could think you’re looking at storage lots for a trailer company, just waiting to ship out their newest model to happy weekend travelers. But these trailers, in these mind-numbing lots, are now home for people. Many other trailers sit in front yards of destroyed houses. The people seem to be waiting, but for what?

I kept thinking about where else I have been witness to such scenes. I have worked in Flint, Newark, Detroit, New York, and other cities as well as many rural areas and I have seen poverty and destruction and much despair. Each time it is heart-breaking.

But here it happened all at once; here we made pledges to respond; here we sent down record-breaking amounts of charity; here we continue to fail to fulfill our promises. Many of the conditions that we now face in New Orleans – such as poverty, poor public schools, corruption, racism, and other issues – existed long before Hurricane Katrina and Rita. And let’s be clear: some of these problems were a result of irresponsible inaction over many years on the part of leaders in New Orleans. Indeed, before the hurricanes I was asked to come down and work in the city – but disagreements slowed that work and ultimately choked it off.

But none of this is an excuse for what is happening now in New Orleans. Recently, President Bush traveled to the city to tell people that he and the federal government would not forget them. Other leaders have made similar claims. But, when you drive through, and you think about the condition of people’s lives, there is little sign that people have been remembered.

Good deeds are being done by many courageous groups in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast. But those acts of goodwill do not take any of us off hook – whether we live in New Orleans or throughout the rest of the nation.

The phrase “Shock and Awe” was probably cobbled together by some overly clever speechwriter or public relations person to help us imagine the destruction that would rain down upon Iraq. Little did we know that we would have to face up to our own shock and awe right here.

Let us respond.