New Orleans remains rife with crime today, as I write this. It is listed as the city with the most crime in the country. It had crime before Hurricane Katrina. But the facts, given in the series of articles done by this author for Digital Journal, reflect that a lack of responsibility within the government created chaos for hard-working, conscientious people as well as the poor and struggling and that New Orleans had gone a long way in fighting crime before the hurricane hit. The people, however, had responsibilities themselves to move forward before and after the storm.
Journalistic focus on New Orleans has often been on the crime and chaos as opposed to efforts at rebuilding, which have gone on at every level. The state is now better organized to meet the concerns of disaster since the lessons of Katrina. People in New Orleans now also know there might be no buses arriving in time, and so some have exit plans or have left the city completely. During the bad season of hurricanes last year, the city proved its ability to evacuate in a mostly-orderly fashion as authorities were there to assist. I know; I had evacuees at my bed and breakfast in Natchitoches and kept up with the news. Disaster responses have been better than they were in 2005 because many folk at the local level learned a lesson from Hurricane Katrina.
Still the people of New Orleans face insurance woes, rebuilding problems that continue and crime rate that grows with increasing frustration over long delays in getting things done. Those folks who bottled up their feelings, because counseling was given only as band-aids and not en masse for free, can exhibit problems later, as this author’s series has shown. So part of the city’s reconstruction has to focus on helping people in the trenches with group counseling efforts, community rebuilding that focuses on people helping people and building new relationships. The emphasis has to be placed not on saving souls, as religious groups have wanted to do with their good intentions, leaving if souls weren’t garnered, nor “get on with it” attitudes that imply folks should have just took independent effort and did it themselves. Instead there should be a combination of efforts oriented towards helping rebuild the infrastructure supporting the city at all levels.
How is that done? These are my opinions after many weeks of reading, talking with people and devoting myself to understanding the complexities of the problems of this disaster and others, including the one I lived through myself.
1. Congress must allocate sufficient funds for resources for building and maintaining protection systems so that they aren’t done with the cheapest but best materials. They should also hire the best engineers from the best universities to lead teams and do the work.
2. Emotional relief needs support. The technique to follow is this as a model of communication with victims: “I know you have deep feelings, some of which may be lasting. You must hurt a lot. People like me understand. You have a right to feel bad. Grieve when you need to. I am here to help, tell me what you need.” Those who counsel, or support victims in any way, must understand that there is a grieving process, like a death, that victims go through. Victims need to understand and work with that process as well.
The rest of relief is to help. Do what therapists did the month after Katrina. Do what college students have done on spring break. Visit and help with children’s programs by way of volunteering with reading. Adopt a school or community center. Write to victims and lend emotional support. Adopt a friend.
3. Group infighting occurs under stress. Victims of the storm argue with each other about the cause of the problems and what needs to be done to move forward. How does it stop? Part of it can’t unless people have a single goal which is to move forward for the sake of the city, not for individual egos, or to win points in the argument itself. The goal is to make what is left of New Orleans a good place to live. That happens by taking the kinds of steps that anyone takes in healing which are these:
(a) Recognize a problem exists. Cease denial. The city has a high crime rate, high poverty, a high rate of high school dropouts, health problems and problems at every level. Look within as well as without for the answers. How do you raise your children? How do you interact with others on a daily basis? Do you help cover up the problems so you don’t have to defend them like the leaders have done or do you face them straight away?
(b) Establish leadership, as levees.org has done for purposes of cooperation and action. Sandy Rosenthal told me that organizational support is important. She said, "We need a truly independent bipartisan investigative panel on the failure of the flood protection in New Orleans and nearby St. Bernard Parish so that the problems won't happen again here or anywhere in America." She also told me that the panel is needed so people stop blaming themselves and others, learn what happened and come together with knowledge instead of just blame. It will help the country understand as well and not give up on the city. So the recommendation is to join action groups. If there aren’t any on solving a problem, start one. Get members. Write letters. Ask questions.
4. Vote for politicians based upon specific plans to help and those who are positive and working with national leadership. Old ways die hard in Louisiana as a whole, and many don’t want to change, which is why slavery and segregation prevailed in the Deep South. That is part of the challenge. Politicians use that knowledge to rally their troops and separate Louisiana from the rest of the country as they do so, with antiquated laws or those far beyond the social and religious framework of other places. For that reason people will only visit and not want to remain. As it is, in many ways and many places, Louisiana has been and still is a punitive place in many ways where politicians and preachers rule with platitudes and promises but little real change.
5. Give up the curse of race, because the underbelly remains. As much as New Orleans has a distinct culture from the rest of the state, and the inclusion of blacks in that culture, the racial separation remains socially in many areas, and the flight from city to suburbs continues. Some of that is oriented towards wanting protection and good quality schools, which is understandable. Those in desperate areas need to become desperately interested in establishing ethical systems of personal responsibility so that when people do examine the communities, it is clear that leaving is based on race not some other problem. At first the problems were race, given the resistance to integration, which meant New Orleans was integrating schools with high-profile resistance witnessed by people like my husband who lived there 20 years after Brown vs. the Board of Education. Now it is based on fear, resentment and misunderstanding.
6. Citizens across the country, and visitors of all stripes, must see New Orleans as part of cherished history, something to be treasured, respected and preserved. I wrote an article myself one time that maintained that the city looked like a used-up whore who steps out into the daytime after a night with too much booze and too many men. Indeed in many parts of the city, especially when the rains come, the city has that look. The seedy bars in the French Quarter seem to dominate the scene and the conversation is at decibels beyond what is needed to attract visitors who won’t just want the woman of the night but the lady of the day as well if they are ever to come back or settle there themselves.
New Orleans, is at heart, a gracious, gorgeous lady of the South, with all the warmth, generosity and passion the image implies. That gorgeous lady of the South, we should know, both literally and figuratively, could likely be great on Saturday night with parties and intimate fun. But at the end of the day, whether the city is chocolate or not, it should strive to be the Southern lady, with its elegant history and charm. That should be its future and its ultimate path.
This opinion is based on those references used for the series of six articles on the Hurricane Katrina disaster written by this author. It includes frequent conversations with New Orleans citizens who love their city and ask for understanding as they rebuild.