What Katrina taught me

27 Aug 2015 18:09
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I wrote this two years ago for a Katrina anniversary event I agreed to speak at but couldn't attend.

Good evening everyone. Thank you to Nancy for inviting me to speak at this event. Unfortunately, a little disaster prevented me from attending. On my way back from training health workers in the Four Corners region of Colorado, the clutch gave out on my car. While I try to put together $900 to remedy this situation, I'm stranded far from home, far from this event and my job and everything I had hoped to do this weekend.

My little personal disaster is not a bad place to start thinking about what it means to weather a storm like Katrina's aftermath. The subjective experience of a catastrophe is in many ways like that of a million little disasters repeated across space and through time, with those who are vulnerable no different from those vulnerable outside of disaster.

I remember the emptiness of major streets in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans after the winds and rain of Katrina had been replaced with impossible stillness and impossible heat. I remember who stayed in my neighborhood: disabled residents and elderly residents and a few of their caregivers who could not bear to leave them — and a handful of neighborhood leaders who felt a responsibility to stay to ensure the survival of the neighborhood.

I remember the forces that wanted us gone: the cracker squads who declared "open season on niggers," the police who closed the parish border to blacks, trapping disaster survivors in, the 82nd Airborne and 1st Cav soldiers who evacuated the Fischer Housing Project a week after the storm as if it were an insurgent village on the border of Pakistan. The flying vees of unorganized New Orleans Police who kicked in doors and settled scores. The politicians who staged a land-grab, promising 80,000 property lots to developers, then had to ensure that 80,000 property owners remained displaced.

Most of all, I remember why a ragtag group of people who believed in the right of black communities to practice neighborhood self-defense established and developed the first civilian healthcare services in the city, a free clinic on the corner of Teche and Socrates streets in the Algiers neighborhood on the West Bank of New Orleans. I think those of us who nurtured the clinic through its first months had many different reasons why we did so, but we met on one.

The City of New Orleans was built by its residents. It is its residents. The world owes New Orleanians for the vibrant life they made from the scraps they've had to work with, the music and way of life that makes the world smile. The city could only be rebuilt by its residents. In the aftermath of the storm, its survivors and heroes faced dispossession, state terror, and casual murder. Those who wanted to stay might benefit from a health corps to attend to their medication refills, listen, and advocate for them as they strove to hold ground against dispossession and rebuild. We knew how to do health work.

Every day was like a year after Katrina. I don't talk too much about it anymore, because once I start it is hard to stop. Maybe you're lucky that I'm stranded with a broke down car in a national forest, because it means I can't overwhelm you with stories of the horror and the hope I lived through. Some day, if you see me, stop me on the street and ask about Katrina. For as long as you want, I'll tell stories that have come to define my life.

For now, I have three goals. I want you to imagine catastrophe in a way that makes it familiar, not foreign. I want you to know the degree to which disaster survivors rise to almost any occasion and totally outclass organized relief efforts. Finally I want you to know how even the organized relief I loved most suffered from a failure of the imagination. I will say this now, and again after I make those three points: in a catastrophe, our hope does not come from the hills, it comes from us.

To make the familiar foreign, I want you to imagine that your house burned down. No one died in the fire, thank God. You lost your essential documents, your mementos, your bank card, checkbook, medications, eyeglasses, food stamp card, phone — everything. The Red Cross puts your family up in a shelter for a while. Some of your family and friends help; some avoid you. You try to deal with your insurance and your financial institutions. Most of what you lost can never be replaced. Even years later, a certain pain and alertness remains.

Now imagine that your bank also burned down, and the local Red Cross. All the hotels, and all the pharmacies, all the grocery stores and food stamp offices burned too. Your psychiatrist's office burned, the emergency room burned, The Lighthouse for the Blind burned, and so did the homes of everyone you've ever known and everywhere you've ever been. Everywhere you could walk to is burnt to smoking ruin, but you can't even see to walk. What would you do?

I don't know you, but I'll wager money I know what you'd do. Within 24 hours someone would find you, and together, the two of you would find someone else to help. You'd help them dig through the wreckage of their home. You would canvass the neighborhood, meet neighbors you never knew you had, look for survivors. You would give away food you found and share information. You would begin to self-organize, prioritize, and surprise yourself with your collective ingenuity.

When the soldiers were sent in to New Orleans after Katrina, they were told to restore order, to establish a jail, to clear houses, to stop looting, and to fear disaster survivors. The guardsmen who stayed long enough to properly see for themselves, saw a New Orleans safer and more egalitarian than was imaginable, self-organized for survival, with bitter enemies working side-by side. In my neighborhood, when our detachment of guardsmen realized this, they knew they had been misled. By mid-September 2005, they began to ignore their orders and ask survivors how they could help.

It is harder to show the ecological toll of Katrina, because I don't know it well enough. I was inside a clinic for 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, so never saw the effects of the Murphy Oil Spill in St Bernard Parish, or the land loss in native communities of lower Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes. I didn't get to see the massive hazardous waste dump in New Orleans East where a city's worth of building material was deposited. I wasn't with my cousin when she encountered a quarter million dumped refrigerators. The human toll — and human potential — that I saw from the clinic took all my attention. Our biggest environmental illnesses were a nonspecific rash and the Katrina Cough, a difficult-to-treat upper respiratory infection that everybody had for a while.

After Katrina, I saw only people, and the bonds between people. At first I saw people who lived on a fixed income and depended on medications to manage their asthma, blood pressure, diabetes, chronic pain, or schizophrenia. The storm came on the 29th, so their check was gone and so was their medication. Then I saw people who needed to talk through horrific experiences, terrible fears, and the impossible challenges ahead. Then I saw hundreds of Sewerage and Water Board workers who needed tetanus and hepatitis vaccines before they returned to work. I saw people who felt safer sitting in front of the clinic than in their homes because of the constant danger of state violence. I saw our clinic volunteers decompensating and finding no one who could understand the burdens they carried after all they had witnessed.

This brings me to our failure of imagination. Our little clinic, established by nonprofessional movement first-aiders and disaster survivors in a mosque, was for a year the busiest free clinic in the nation, ranked in the highest tier of clinical care. Thanks to volunteers and donations, we provided care at the lowest cost per patient. All very exciting.

However, in our exuberance, we replaced disaster survivors with out-of-state volunteers, dropped our initial model of being a medical support corps in order to emulate Federally Qualified Health Centers, and failed to provide adequate mental health support to our volunteers. The clinic did not close. It is still at 1401 Teche St, and still sees patients. It is a long-term commitment to the health of a black American neighborhood it joined in a time when the oldest and sickest stood their ground against a militarized land grab.

However, I also learned the toll that disaster takes on those that come from out of town, who leave their lives to spend months or years participating in relief and recovery as unpaid volunteers. New Orleans was a citywide support group for a while. Survivors were invited, but out-of-town responders were not.

After listening to hundreds of survival stories, becoming deeply involved in people's lives and struggles, and living under extreme state violence, responders found that their families and friends away from the disaster could not understand their struggles, and neither could disaster survivors. The toll that the clinic took on its volunteers was too heavy. We needed to understand our own vulnerability and collectively provide for our own recovery, and we did not.

The disaster of Katrina only began with the storm. It continues with the deadly depredations of real estate vultures. Their land grabs mete out more destruction than the flood could. Those who want to help may find it too difficult to do anything now, unlike in 2005 when it felt like we could do everything.

Whatever form your concern for affected family, friends, or strangers may take, remember who always does most of the relief work — devastated people who need something to do in times of crisis. Not the Guard, not the Red Cross, not even the little clinic I loved and helped to build.

In times of catastrophe, follow your gut. Your help will never come from the hills, only from you. Despite governments' proclivity for repressive violence and business's proclivity for anti-human opportunism, in times of crisis people self-organize and demonstrate a strength that could turn the world right-side up.

I am sorry I was not able to be here in person, but thank you for allowing me to share my experiences.

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