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Katrina: Lifting the Curtain
on Racism and Poverty


By Leigh Saavedra
(Formerly writing as Lisa Walsh Thomas)

 

September 8, 2005



When Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on August 29, she tore open not only a city, its levees, and a coastline, but a glamorous body that was false, something created with cosmetic surgery; she exposed the cancers and scar tissue and ugly organs of our nation that we had either forgotten or never known were there.

When I saw clips of the Superdome, people on TV starving and dehydrated three days after Katrina's strike, I decided on the spot to make the 500-mile drive from Austin with all the water and food I could carry in my small car. I didn't know why the government wasn't there, why the people who hadn't been able to leave on their own hadn't been evacuated, but I'm a "build-it-and-they-will-come" believer, certain that if one person went to their rescue, another would, and another. Kind of like voting with one small voice. In my inability to comprehend the magnitude of what had happened when the levees were breached, I thought we could save everyone.

And I had to, partly from a selfish standpoint. New Orleans was one of the most vibrant cities I'd ever spent time in. It was personal to me, had been since a Girl Scout trip when I was twelve, watching the cook prepare cherries jubilee the real way, open flames and all, at Diamond Jim's. It was magic, and for years I still had the snapshots made from my Brownie camera. Gorgeous courtyards filled with hanging baskets of magnificent flowers, wrought iron balconies from which people shouted and waved down to wide-eyed girl scouts, the Mighty Mississippi, street musicians, crawfish etouffee.

Later, as an undergraduate at the University of Mississippi, it was the home of my roommate, a destination for long weekends, the perfect place to get drunk after an Ole Miss - LSU football game. There was the inimitable Pat O'Brien's, but it was also the place to which I escaped after the ugliness that arose from James Meredith's admission to the all-white university. In the Big Easy, we could go through the quarter and, drunk or not, soak up the embraces between blacks and whites. A jazz haven where James Meredith would have been as welcome being one color as another. No crime statistics fuzz up what I saw and experienced: it was a haven for many of us from the racism of the early sixties. The French Quarter told us about love long before San Francisco's flower children did.

And now its people, so known for celebrating life despite poverty, were starving. The poverty and squalor beneath the city's charm were exposed like a mutation meant to be hidden under bandages.

The plan to load up my 13-year old son and our supplies and take off the same day changed quickly when a woman at the Texas highway department in Houston advised me strongly against taking a child into Louisiana while people were desperate. I concurred, then prepared to leave alone, not quite as confident as I had been. Then Patty Esfandiari called to ask if she could come. I had already started collecting food and clothing and pledges from internet friends to reimburse me for buying what was needed, and nothing could have been more welcome or needed than both Patty and her van.

By the time we left, a little over a week after Governor Blanco had declared a state of emergency, the first convoy of food and water had finally moved into New Orleans, but the horror stories were mounting. A man on CNN had screamed that a baby was dying every day in the Superdome. It was impossible to kill the image of bloated human bodies floating around people who were trying to escape the nightmare. Poisonous snakes in the toxic, muddy water that had risen in places up to twenty feet, submerging houses in which people might be hiding.

In the eight hours it took us to get to central Louisiana, the Red Cross had come to the rescue, but we had no idea how successful their relief would be in the next few hours. Really, we knew very little. We weren't at that time concerned with the cause of the levee failures, the role of Homeland Security. Politics had been pushed aside; we wanted only to get rice to hungry people.

Among the hodgepodge of disturbing thoughts that wouldn't leave my mind during those hours driving down toward the muggy, fertile delta were a series of emails I had received the day before, notes full of anger that I was collecting donations for "those people." I had made the mistake of answering one, saying that I didn't think this governmental neglect would be taking place if the victims were white. One of the notes sent me said:

"..... - if you are so certain that the violence in N.O. has more to do with white racism that [sic] black misbehavior I'll buy you an airline ticket to Lafayette Louisinana [sic] and you can go there and help all those poor, helpless black people - how does that sound?" Attached were other articles about crime and African-Americans. One was written by David Duke, though I don't know if it was the well-known David Duke or a namesake. The writer was raging hot about the "liberal Jewish media" brainwashing us.

In a separate email the same person wrote: "would this happen if these were white people? The answer to that is NO. One would not be able to find a comparable example of this type of behavior among whites in all of recorded history."

The last note told me to just go ahead then, if I thought "those people" were going to welcome us, to send a report...

I will.

We bypassed Houston, having heard that the Astrodome was receiving abundant supplies, and made our first real stop in Beaumont, not far from the Louisiana line. First a church, then a distribution center. Things were calm, but we were not directed to the place where the evacuees were sheltered. It didn't matter; they were safe, and the time for visiting had not yet come. Clothing and food was pouring in already, but a volunteer told us to go on through Orange, Texas and cross the state line. There, she told us hesitantly, we'd see a bit of a park near the "Welcome to Louisiana" sign. She had just heard that people were sleeping there and had nothing to eat.

So we headed across the line. Without the tip, we wouldn't have noticed the small park, or the picnic table where four people sat, staring into space, an ancient car with a lifted hood parked idly behind them.

Through tears that she kept insisting were "tears of joy because someone would stop for us" and needing to be held, Kim Simpson was the spokesperson for the four-member family. There was Kim, early twenties, rail-thin, and four-months pregnant, her father, able to say little except that they wanted out of Louisiana, a sister who was missing a leg, and an older woman who never said a word, just continued to look into space, seeing something I would never see.

At first all four had looked frightened as I approached them, but the minute I asked what they needed, Kim became a fountain of emotion, clinging to me, saying, "Mother, mother, mother, you stopped for us. You saw us." In a moment she was able to tell me that their family of six had left New Orleans, that two of them had drowned. Their car had overheated, broken, and they stopped here. Someone had seen them and brought them hamburgers, but they were hungry again, and very thirsty.

There was water nearby, in the public restroom, but I wondered if they were afraid to separate or whether, in their stunned state, they understood that they were only yards away from it.

While I'm the talker, Patty is the doer, and she was already gathering up food and juice, towels and soap. With the public restroom so close, they could get themselves clean, and I was grateful that toothbrushes and toothpaste were in the supplies that our generous donors had allowed us to buy. She was distributing everything that they seemed to have a need for while I talked to Kim, tried to calm her, explained that -- for the baby -- she needed to make herself calm, practice taking deep breaths with me.

We never asked them about the two family members who drowned; it would not have felt right. We talked only about what they needed. In the middle of this, like a descending angel, a woman pulled her car up next to our van and ran over to us. She was an independent volunteer working to find people who needed to get to Red Cross shelters. We introduced her to Kim's family and began to assure them that they would soon be in a shelter, safe.

The woman, whose name we never even wrote down, was making phone calls from her car. Then she returned and told us that someone from a Red Cross shelter in Orange, Texas, was going to come for them as soon as possible. She assured us that she would stay with the family until they arrived and that should anything go wrong, she would transport them herself. We all, except for the totally silent woman, began to talk a bit, with an edge of hysteria, covering only one thing, the number of birthdays that everyone or a relative had in September. I don't know if the silent woman even heard us.

It would soon be dark, and we knew we should reach a destination, probably Lafayette, before nighttime. So we went back to the car, Kim walking with us, still clinging to my arm, listening to the chatter I made up as we went, about how someday her baby would grow older and think times were bad and how she could tell him or her about what was really difficult. "And," I made certain to always conclude, "how you made it through, got to safety, had a home ready for the birth."

"Oh, Mother, it will come down. Tears of joy because I know it will come down. You stopped for us. Why did you stop for us?"

I don't remember how I answered her. Maybe we just held each other, but I do remember fuzzily thinking how New Orleans has a culture all its own, not a Black culture but a New Orleans culture, a soft, wondrous combination of Cajun and African with its own lingo. I knew many New Orleans residents lived and died in the city without ever leaving it. I was wondering if a person who had never been outside New Orleans could find comfort in another city, another world.

At the van, Patty was pulling out more supplies for Kim and her family, and Kim adamantly stopped her, pushing what Patty was taking out back into the van.

"No, no, we have enough now. We don't need it. There's people behind," as she pointed east. "They that needs it more. We don't need it, Mother. Save it for the others."

For an instant, as Kim turned and again threw her arms around my neck, I remembered the woman who had sent me emails warning me of the hate with which we would be received. Then I looked at Kim and was reminded of Sir Philip Sydney, the 16th century "worthiest knight that lived" (as the English people dubbed him), who died at age 32 at Zutphen fighting the Spanish. It was reported that when Sir Philip was offered a drink of water before he died, he turned to a dying comrade nearby and purportedly said, "Give it to him, his need is greater than mine."

Sir Phillip was white and highly privileged. Kim is black and "underprivileged."

I didn't want to leave her, but I knew there were supposed to be over a million people we wouldn't want to leave, so we drove on to Lafayette, where we sought a shelter outside the good but bureaucratic confines of an institutional charity. We spent some time at the Cajundome, which we were told held 4,000 people. It was full, and while there was enough food and water for everyone, the overflow was camping outside. We talked with those who could talk, but there were many I couldn't understand. One man could talk of nothing but the alligators. He said alligators were eating people, but he said it more to the air than to me. Later I read that there were no alligators in the canals, only poisonous snakes. Whatever the fact, this man believed he had seen alligators eating people.

It was late, and the only officials we could find were two policemen who could tell us nothing, just to leave our donations by the door. But they weren't really needed, not then anyway, so -- hungry and tired -- we went on to Patty's cousin's house, where we ate real gumbo with real roux, and sifted through their information. The cousin and her husband had been cooking and taking food to the Cajundome, as had their neighbors. I slept in a comfortable bed but fitfully, alligators in my dreams.

In the morning we found what we wanted at the Lafayette First Assembly of God, where an abandoned school behind the church had been converted to a four-building shelter, able to hold about thirty evacuees in each building. Three were full. By the time we arrived, volunteer plumbers had already come and installed showers in each building.

 


There we were allowed to move freely, to talk to the people. Some sat silently, staring into space, an observation that wouldn't fully hit home with me until a day later, when I remembered how many of those camping outside the Cajundome had the same blank expression. Others at the First Assembly school were vocal, happy and thankful to have someone there. Their food and drink needs were already met, and each had some form of bedding, mostly on the floor. It was far more comforting than the more institutionalized Cajundome had seemed. Then again, we were dealing with about 130 people rather than over 4,000.

It was luxurious to be able to go person to person and ask them what they most needed. The response was almost unanimous: clean underwear. Because of people's generosity, we were able to buy everything requested, large piles of fresh white underwear, new socks, children's tee-shirts and shorts, all the bags we could manage. One young man, perhaps 16, shyly told me that he was lactose-intolerant, and we were able to return with soy milk for him. Also lactose-free milk for one baby. Our last purchase was a VHS/DVD player, and the people at the church assured us, as we were by then out of funds, that church members would supply them with plenty of tapes.

It is being able to address these specific needs that makes me confident that despite the overwhelming results of the Red Cross, single independent people have their place too. On our last shopping trip, I picked up four little bottles of nail polish, hoping they would promote socialization among young women, along with the simple activity of painting each other's nails. Later, my friend Paul pointed out that the Red Cross, feeding thousands, might not have the time to think of nail polish for a few young women.

While we ran into dozens upon dozens of evacuees who simply couldn't talk, not yet, we met with not one instant of hostility or bitterness. It exists; of course it exists; it must. But it's possible that it is most strongly expressed by those who have no idea of the humiliation involved in having to ask for clean underwear.

One of my favorite editors recently suggested to me that we keep in mind Lewis Carroll's suggestion that a writer start at the beginning and stop at the end. In this case, I'm not so sure that Katrina and all her ramifications are linear. It's too big.

We headed into this hearing expressions of racism. I returned to find out that others had received clearly racist email. One activist who posts as "Magginkat" shared some of the notes she had received, one saying, "let the Blacks take in the black people of New Orleans."

I am one of those who believe the level of criminal governmental neglect involved in the rescue of the people of New Orleans would not have been so high had they been all white, or maybe more financially secure people. But it doesn't end with knowing that. It doesn't end until we find out how racism can morph into hate and hate into what some are viewing as genocide. It doesn't end until we can understand why there is such a disdain, nearly phobic, for poverty in this country. It doesn't end until we can separate neglect from accident from ineptitude. We saw racism, poverty down to its bare bones, and still we saw love -- one man cutting a younger man's hair, a little girl with pretty barrettes in her hair, daughter of a volunteer, playing ball with a teenage boy who had come from New Orleans with nothing; both were laughing.

 

 


We know that violence erupted during the looting period, and we know atrocities were committed in the Superdome. But we also know that many African-Americans drove themselves to near exhaustion trying to save others while their mostly-white leaders played golf, strummed guitars, and passed the "problem" on to others, that being a kind of violence itself.

It will be sorted out, the racism perhaps separated from the hatred of poverty, the fear of those who have nothing. Whether it will ever be solved is not so certain. Every observation comes back in the night, quietly sometimes, showing me something that simply couldn't fit into my view at the moment.

It was later, much later, before I realized that Kim -- smiling, crying Kim, who had seen two members of her family drown in a filthy, toxic lake of rushing water caused by a lack of public funds but who would accept no more supplies than what was needed immediately -- was wearing pajamas, only pajamas.

By the time Patty and I reached home Sunday night, we both knew, in hushed knowledge, that New Orleans was dead. I found myself preoccupied with my last memories of the way it was. By coincidence and now-sad luck, I had taken my son there only three weeks before Katrina struck. It was the first time he had been able to walk down Bourbon Street and listen to jazz as it was perhaps designed to be heard, straight from musician to music lover, eyes meeting. Strangers approached us and talked in the muggy night air about everything -- how beautiful the night was, that my son plays the sax, whatever came out, as they do only in New Orleans. I almost fell outside a club on Dauphine Street, and a very tall young man in a bright red shirt appeared beside me, helping me through the moment, telling me, "Mother, you don't have to fall. Just believe!" He had the most beautiful smile in the world, and I believed.

That, with its myriad names, is gone, is irreplaceable.

Oh, some kind of replication will probably be attempted, but the heart of New Orleans has been torn out. Whether it has been sacrificed to the gods of greed is still left to be determined, but it will never fully beat again. The unique culture of New Orleans cannot be reproduced.

And in that exposure, the raw poverty and helplessness of hundreds of thousands of nonessential people, people too poor to cause their leaders to sound the alarm and come rushing to save them, Katrina shook us, awakened us to what exists throughout this nation that advertises itself as the land of plenty, where every man and woman is equal. When the world saw how many "throwaways" lived beneath the facade of New Orleans, they knew they were also in Omaha, Dallas, Pittsburg, Tallahassee, Seattle. They knew the billboard signs and the television ads were lies.

The country is broken. We've feared it for some time, and New Orleans proved it. It didn't, perhaps, have to happen. For seven years, from 1993 to 2000, poverty in the U.S. declined. Now for four straight years, according to last week's Census Bureau, the number of Americans falling into poverty has increased.

The upper two percent of America has never been so wealthy, has not in a very long time enjoyed such low taxes. It is no longer truly uncommon to have two or more houses. Congress is ready to abolish the estate tax after brainwashing us into thinking of it as a "death" tax, rarely telling us that it affects only two percent of the nation, those able to lift all boats. Like a piece of taffy pulled until it finally breaks, the nation is pulled, the rich now being able to live lavishly off the interest of their interest even when rates are low, the poor being unable to buy medicine and eat at the same time. The corruption and callousness in high places has never been higher. A poor black African-American boy is a candidate for the army, probably his only hope of ever coming out of the ghetto. Corporations have never had greater power over the people. Their CEOs cheat and steal and most often go unpunished.

The feeling prevalent in the Eisenhower and Kennedy days that the rich had been blessed and should in return shoulder enough load to lift the whole country upwards began at some time to change into an every-man-for-himself social Darwinism that began to embrace that aspect of new Christianity that sometimes suggests the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor. As the winds changed, those who were able became less willing to pay taxes; social programs began to be looked upon not as something to make the entire nation stronger, but as a leftist affront to hard work. The "haves" insisted upon pulling themselves further to one end of the spectrum, pushing the "have-nots" further to the other. Social infrastructure began to crumble.

The glamorous body that we thought was America, that we tried to project to the world and to our children, was a myth. It was as false as a mannequin, as bloated as the bodies of the dead being collected in the streets and attics of New Orleans.

It didn't have to happen that way.
 

 



Leigh Saavedra, writing for years under the name Lisa Walsh Thomas, has been a peace and human rights activist and writer for all her life. She can be contacted at saavedra1979@yahoo.com .

 

 


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