Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hurricane Katrina...a thing of the past???

I'm afraid that for many of us, Hurricane Katrina is something that happened (past tense). Unfortunately, for so many others, Katrina is very much a present tense issue...yet something that few are paying attention to. A friend of mine explained that when he went home to visit not long ago, his relatives still didn't have running water. Below is a fairly long piece, but one I strongly recommend reading. Kalamu is a friend of a friend. He communicates a powerful but very sad word about the lives in New Orleans. Please read:

N.O. Way to Live. Comments from Kalamu ya Salaam in New Orleans.

WHAT NOW? By Kalamu ya Salaam

Less than half the pre-storm population has returned to New Orleans to face the music. Housing for non-home owners is expensive to non-existent. Health care, ditto. Other than construction and fast food service, jobs are scare, benefits miserly. Public education and the lottery have a lot in common, you can play, but only a handful hit the jackpot.

Beyond the daily battles a new and even more disturbing trend emerges: seniors are dying, youth are leaving. Seniors dying from strokes, heat attacks, and cancer fill the obituary pages. In our city seniors were a social safety net. From baby-sitting to first responders to crisis, we counted on Big Mamas and Auntees, Parans and Nannans (God-parents), uncles and older cousins.

Since Katrina, we can no longer count on them.Vital health care services are gone, simple check-ups and routine medications are now rarely available. Although the stress of living in a trailer combined with a fourteen-month history of untreated diabetes or undiagnosed cancer is a lethal cocktail, it's not dramatic enough to become national news, after-all tens of thousands of Americans survive without adequate health care or insurance.

For youth on the edge of adulthood, the outlook is even bleaker. Imagine, your name is Tyeasha. You're seventeen. The housing development where you lived has been boarded up for over a year and a half. The high school you attended may never re-open. Your family is flung across city and state lines. Is that why you find yourself staring at empty buildings?

Or you could be Aaron unable to go outside after school because the smell from across the street aggravates your asthma. The local drug lord is cooking cocaine, which he will later dispense from the corner. But you're no snitch, and besides the police are corrupt and won't protect you. Since you're a high school sophomore, you only have two more years to put up with this and then you're out of here.

Gabe graduated from the University of New Orleans this past December and now she is working in a high school writing program. Gabe wants to help rebuild her city but she's pretty sure she won't raise her family here. Crime is bad and the educational system worst but it's the little things that really get to her, like no grocery store anywhere near her neighborhood. Should you really have to drive three or four miles just to buy beans, rice and chicken?

Theresa is trying hard not to drop out. She'll be twenty-one soon. One year kept back. One year lost to Katrina. The following year shunted between schools until finally she was informed: we can't find your transcript, you'll just have to repeat.

An Angelica at one school was doing well but her family broke apart and so now she's in Memphis after both she and her mother were battered by her father. Meanwhile, Angelica at another school had vowed to finish her senior year but now they've moved across the river and...

I wish Brittany good luck in dodging the Marine recruiter. In a moment of confusion she signed an intent to volunteer. She was seventeen. What else was she going to do? Her mother died when she was eight. Her father, well, forget about that. Katrina scattered her siblings. Brittany currently has no where to live in the city. So she gets up at five a.m. to catch a commute bus from Baton Rouge to New Orleans in order to finish her senior year while staying with a sister who lives eighty miles from school. It's not even a month yet and Brittany can't keep it up.

Kenneth's cousin was killed on Christmas eve, or was it Christmas day? It seems like bad news never stops. None of these stories are sexy enough for news anchors to share. People succumbing to cancer. Children dropping out of public school. What else is new?

I hear they're having Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Everything must be getting back to normal. Pre-Katrina "Big Easy" was already a disaster. Now New Orleans sometimes gives Baghdad a fierce run for the money-twelve murders over the 2007 New Year's holidays and we're officially the per capita murder capitol of America.

Driving across a town where you constantly run into broken traffic lights, where sparsely populated neighborhoods are patrolled by armed national guard, and where the emergency trauma center-should you have an accident-is located five miles outside the city limits, as you negotiate these truly mean streets the thought is never far from your mind: why am I still here?

I'm 59. I teach five high school classes, five days a week. New Orleans was my home. This "new" New Orleans is another country in which I feel like an alien. Daily some non-native consultant arrives to do a study or offer a bold, innovative rebuilding plan. Meanwhile the physical and social infrastructure disintegrates, undelivered state and federal aid is shrouded in bureaucracy, thousands of vacant houses have not been touched since before the flood.

Everyday I face young men and women, each with a particular story, a specific need, an individual reaction to the aftermath. They are traumatized.

Mekele says she couldn't stop crying New Year's day and she is trying hard to rationalize away her fear of rain. What I want people to understand is simple. New Orleans doesn't have to be ignored. America spends over eight billion dollars a month in Iraq. How much has the government spent to rebuild post Katrina?

It may be difficult to understand right now, but I believe New Orleans is everywhere USA. We really need to prioritize the social and physical reconstruction of urban America. Our seniors are dying. Our youth are leaving. We're ignoring the past and killing the future. This is no way to live.

Writer and filmmaker Kalamu ya Salaam (Kalamu@aol.com) is co-director of Students at the Center, a writing program in the New Orleans public schools.

More details about his work are available at: http://www.kalamu.com/

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