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Were you there?

3rd September 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Edmund W. Lewis

Thursday, August 29, marked the eighth year since Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee breaks devastated the city of New Orleans and other towns along the Gulf Coast. Although eight years have passed since everything we took for granted ceased to exist, it still feels like very little time has passed and not enough progress has been made since those dark days.

In honor of those who perished during and after the Great Flood of 2005 and in tribute to those who continue to fight daily to rebuild their lives, homes, communities and themselves, we choose to remember everything that happened on August 29, 2005 and beyond rather than forget.

Were you there when the levees broke? Were you there when those left behind began to scramble for their lives?

Did you see them wading through oceans of toxic floodwater to reach higher ground, only to find new challenges and crises there? Did you see them lying on the roofs of homes, waving frantically and waiting to be pulled to safety by anyone with a boat or helicopter?

Did you feel the unforgiving Louisiana sun in late August six years ago as hope continued to dry up with the passing of each day as those left behind waited and wondered if they would ever be delivered from floodwaters, thirst, hunger, death and chaos? Did you see and feel the fear, panic, anguish and rage in their eyes as some among them succumbed to death and others prayed for it?

Were you there when chaos roamed the streets of New Orleans?

Did you see the poor, desperate souls who searched high and low for food and water? Did you see families using shopping carts, ice chests, inner tubes and whatever else they could find to carry babies and sick loved ones to safety?

Did you see desperate survivors trying to cross the Crescent City Connection, only to be turned away by shotgun-wielding cops from Jefferson Parish?

Did you see young people and old people alike looting and taking things from stores that they couldn’t possibly use to survive a hurricane? Did you see the residents who took matters into their own hands and shot strangers without asking questions? Did you see the courageous cops who saw so much mayhem around them that they didn’t know which way to turn? Did you see all the pets left behind to fend for themselves?

Were you there when heroes began to emerge from the crisis in New Orleans?

Did you see the doctors, nurses, first responders and everyday people who risked everything to save the lives of fellow residents? Did you see the tears they shed as they realized that they were not going to be able to save everyone? Did you see the young men in eastern New Orleans who used a postal delivery truck to bring food, water and other supplies to the sick and the elderly? Did you see or hear about the young man who hot-wired and commandeered a New Orleans school bus, filled it with desperate people and drove it all the way to Houston, Texas? Did you catch a glimpse of the ex-Marine and others on top of the American Can Apartments who made countless trips through the floodwaters to find food, water and medication for those trapped on the roof of the building? Did you see the many young Black men who gave everything they had to save the lives of complete strangers?

Were you there when some of those that didn’t lose anything took steps to further disenfranchise those most adversely affected by the storm? Did you see them dismantle the public school system and divvy it up like the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885?

Were you there when the toxic waters washed away life as we knew it?

Did you see the bodies of men, women and children floating in putrid floodwaters, entire houses dismantled and cherished family heirlooms forever lost?

Did you see the shameful way in which the sacred remains of some of our elders were discarded and left to decay in the summer heat for days and weeks after everyone had been evacuated to other states?

Did you see the bewilderment and horror on the faces of our children as they wondered what would become of them and their families? Did you see the little boy on a national newscast who frantically tried to find someone to help him to find medication for his grandmother as they waited to be evacuated? Did you hear the anguish and frustration in his young voice as he asked, “What are we supposed to do now”? Did you find yourself applauding this young man for standing up to be heard?

Were you there when Mother Nature blew the roof off the Louisiana Superdome? Did you see the light that was able to come through the roof of the dome?

Were you there when local, state and federal elected officials all tried to put their own spin on what happened here eight years ago? Did you hear them try to call what happened here a “natural” disaster? Did you see them move heaven and earth to put on Mardi Gras the year after the storm but sit on their hands as insurance companies continued to lie, cheat and steal from their constituents? Did you see them scrambling to find money to renovate the Superdome several times as the city’s infrastructure, libraries and neighborhoods continue to crumble?

Did you see the images of the president flying comfortably over New Orleans in his luxury jet as he looked down on the devastation? Did you hear President Bush telling “Brownie” how fine a job he did in New Orleans? Did you see the images of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shopping for designer shoes in New York as Katrina survivors struggled for their lives on the streets of New Orleans? Did you see the audacity on her face as she dared to say she was rooting for the New Orleans Saints at Super Bowl XLIV? Have you heard the condescending remarks some in Congress have made about New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast after Katrina?

Have you watched and listened in disbelief as the Army Corps of Engineers tried to distance itself from any responsibility for what happened here? Have you listened as some people in other parts of the country suggested that we deserved what happened to us because of how and/or where we live?

Have you seen hundreds of folks literally dying of hopelessness and broken hearts as the government and insurance agencies continuously let them down?

Did you hear the story of the young man who returned to New Orleans to find his mother’s remains under a refrigerator in her home, even though rescuers assured him that they had checked the home and no one was there? Did you feel the pain of the New Orleans woman whose elderly mother was lost for months by rescuers, only to be eventually found dead in a far off state? Have you heard the wails and prayers of the many New Orleans residents who still don’t know what happened to their loved ones?

Did you see Lt. Gen. Russell Honoré move in like the Buffalo Soldiers and Tuskegee Airmen of days gone by to get distressed Katrina survivors out of the city with confidence, speed and a sense of purpose? If you did, were you among those who applauded his efforts, shook his hand and said “Thank you” during one of his post-Katrina returns to New Orleans?

Have you seen and experienced the shameless way insurance companies, FEMA workers, Red Cross employees, Road Home officials and others have been routinely mistreating, disrespecting and exploiting hurricane survivors?

Have you watched the American people and people all over the world give hundreds of millions of dollars to help Katrina survivors and find yourself wondering where all that money went?

Did you sneak back into the city and stumble across some of the city’s more fortunate residents sipping cappuccino and acting like Hurricane Katrina never happened? Did you notice how soon after Katrina some of the city’s wealthiest residents gathered in Dallas to decide for everyone what the future of New Orleans should look like? Did you notice the $2,500 and $3,500 “signing bonuses” and $250 weekly bonuses some fast-food restaurants were willing to pay workers to get them to take jobs?

Did you see the police gunning down unarmed and innocent Black men, women and children on the Danziger Bridge and beating a retired schoolteacher in the French Quarter? Did you see the throngs of supporters calling the “Danziger 7” heroes as they turned themselves in?

Did you hear about the heartless, trigger-happy NOPD officer who shot Henry Glover on the West Bank after Katrina and the other officers who finished Glover off and burned his remains in a car on the Mississippi River levee? Did you know that they went back and took his skull and that to this day no one has stepped forward to tell his loved one where his skull is?

Did you return home to discover that while you were fighting for your life, someone was ransacking your home in search of money, jewelry and other valuables? Have you talked to one of the many contractors who have raised their fees by as much as 400 percent without blinking an eye? Have you read the classified ads and witnessed for yourself how little compassion landlords have for struggling families in New Orleans? Have you seen the countless homes of people who have still not been able to return home to take care of their properties or begin putting their lives back together?

Did you see and hear President Bush standing in front of Jackson Square in 2005 when he promised to do whatever was necessary to revitalize this city and region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? Eight years later, do you see overwhelming evidence of that happening?

Have you seen the way the powers that be have used the storm to move in and capitalize on the misfortune of some of the city’s poorest residents? Have you seen them make many decisions with little or no input from the people most affected, including the demolition of the city’s housing projects, the confiscation of homes in a Mid-City neighborhood to make way for a sparkling, new hospital, the illegal, unauthorized mass firing of New Orleans public school administrators, teachers and employees and the closure, demolition and/or relocation of many of the city’s public schools?

Will you remember the names and faces of all the lives we lost eight years ago? Will you remember their hopes, dreams, fears and struggles? Will you remember their smiles and laughter and all the broken hearts they left behind? Will you continue to move forward in honor of the many people left behind and those who are still struggling to return?

If you do remember some or all of these things, you have a divine responsibility to bear witness to the injustices and atrocities that took place here eight years ago and continue to take place in New Orleans. Perhaps the most important way we can honor those who perished during and after Hurricane Katrina is to tell the truths we learned during those dark days and to do everything in our power to ensure that what happened here never happens again anywhere.

This article originally published in the September 02, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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