On Saturday, January 3rd I boarded a plane headed for New Orleans. We touched down a few hours later, and made the hour-long drive to a little town forgotten by the world: Pearlington, Mississippi. Having spent some time in the Gulf region last year, I wasn’t sure what to expect three years out from Katrina.
Would there be the sprawling emptiness of the 9th Ward, where desolate cement slabs marked where homes once stood, where families ate, where children played? Would there be sporadic building- foundations beings poured by church groups, windows being constructed by habitat for humanity? Would the people be resentful at the post-Katrina ADD of the nation?
In a span of little over a week, I would realize the insignificance of these questions.
For the past week, I have been part of a team of social workers from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice who went to Mississippi. The goals of our trip were fairly straightforward:
–Provide compassionate listening to the individuals and families we met in the community. In a world where news is no longer news after a brief media rotation, it has been no secret that thousands of people have been scarred by Hurricane Katrina, and met only with a deafeningly silent response. Going door to door, and sitting for an hour or more, we listened. We sat with them as they re-lived clinging from a tree for hours. We listened as they told us about drinking salt-water from a ditch, and we teared up as they did, recalling the pain of leaving pets behind, of their homes washing away, of their lives being forever turned topsy-turvey on that fateful August day.
-The second thing we wanted to do was to assess the health needs of the community. In this small town of roughly 1,500 people, we knew there were many needs that were not being met. We asked about their doctors and hospitals, we talked about access to facilities and medications, and we recorded their wish lists and recommendations for improvement. It was our hope that in compiling health-needs data and providing it to regional health providers, we would be able to establish an awareness of the health needs in this community- and eventually improve the availability and accessibility of resources.
-Finally, we advertised our health fair. For the past 2 years, the University of Pennsylvania has collaborated with local health care providers and civic organizations to put on a health fair for the community. The free blood pressure readings, hot dogs, vision screenings, moon bounce, raffles and dancing were the stuff of the first major community event the people who turned out had seen in nearly a year.
These goals however, quickly became overshadowed within the first few home visits I made with my partner. The reality of life in Pearlington, Mississippi, we learned, existed outside of health care assessments, and free toothbrushes. So what did I learn? Let me recall a few quick stories I heard:
-A mother of two told us of how both her children developed asthma after moving into FEMA trailers. Both children now require inhalers and nebulizers, and their condition is so serious, that her daughter had to be taken off the school bus one morning and transported to the ER by ambulance from one of the attacks. She then told us that the class-action lawsuit against the government for their formaldehyde laden trailers was being dropped, and individuals were now being forced to pursue their claims individually.
-Another woman who told us she was denied government assistance after the storm. Her husband had to sell his retirement to help rebuild a home, and she later learned that $10,000 in relief aid had been applied for and received in her name fraudulently by someone else.
-A middle aged man whose new home was framed, but not yet completed done in the inside, was scheduled to loose his MEMA cottage (the government version of an upgraded (read: less toxic) FEMA trailer) within a few months. He was told that he was not allowed to stay in his new home because it was not completed, in the same breath that he learned the government wanted their cottage back. So what did he plan to do? Sleep inside of his unfinished house, and set up a tent outside in case people came by to make sure he wasn’t sleeping inside his home.
-Finally, another woman who told us about her two parents who had to move into FEMA trailers after the storm. Her father, with no prior history of the illness, developed full-blow lung cancer within three months of moving into the trailer and died.
We heard dozens of stories of inefficiency, corruption, and incompetency on federal and local levels, over and over again. We saw countless people hold their heads up high, refusing to be deterred from survival, even as they were denied access to building materials in corrupt allocation processes. We heard people tell us they didn’t know what they were going to do when they lost their MEMA trailer, even as we learned that the government was putting these very trailers up for auction. In short, we saw a community victimized once by the storm, and a second time by the entities supposed to support them.
So what are the lessons learned? What are the answers? Well the sweeping conclusions are obvious: The government screwed up- hold them accountable for FEMA trailer health problems. Local government screwed up- investigate and trace funding streams- and prosecute any mismanagement. These are broad, and laborious processes, and the true problem is what does Pearlington need from us right now?
1. Money/Building Materials– direct aid and material donations need to be made directly to storm survivors, or well established and respected aid organizations- not untested local bureaucracies.
2. Volunteers– the initial wave of post-Katrina volunteers was heavy, and has since slowed to a trickle- but there are still homes that need to be completed. In the words of one man we visited- “Y’all are the first people who have come out here in a year besides the meter reader“.
3. Long Term Solutions– This is the most crucial part of the equation. The question is not what do we do to prevent not another “Katrina”, but rather, what do we do to prevent another “Pearlington”, another “9th Ward”?
–First and foremost we must have commitment. We must as a society decide that it is unacceptable to turn our backs on millions of coastal residents, suggesting that they should not be assisted because they live in a flood plain and “its just going to happen again”. How do we get over this case of “Screw them because I’m okay?” Take a look at a map, and point to an area that is not subject to hurricanes, wild fires, severe snow/ice storms, earthquakes, flash floods, tornadoes, mudslides or any other natural disaster. We should no more prohibit people from living in California because of wild fires and earthquakes than we should fail to rebuild the Gulf region.
Global warming and last year’s tsunami have showed us we live in a new era coastal dangers. Short of relocating the entire US coastal population to the North Dakota, we must accept we live in a world where mother nature will strike at whim, and the best we can do, is work together to protect each other.
-Second, we must have funding behind that commitment. Grandiose promises without financial backing will mean little to those in Pearlington, and other similar towns still reeling from the storm. We must have a comprehensive disaster recovery plan for every state in the nation- that is established in a collaborative process between FEMA and each state. FEMA itself is too small to plan for every constituency, but each state should be quite capable of identifying dangers/plans and communicating those to FEMA.
-Third, we must make sure that those responsible for relief efforts are held accountable- not to be vindictive, but to ensure that they are doing their jobs correctly. Someone, somewhere along the way made the decision that FEMA trailers, with known dangerous materials, were okay to distribute to children and families. Someone, somewhere along the way decided that MEMA cottages must be removed unconditionally from everyone without planning for the repercussions.
During the 10 days I spent in New Orleans & Slidell, LA last year, I learned of two other serious issues that should also be addressed: the first is the levees. I stood in the Lower 9th Ward face to face with enormous spans of the levees newly constructed. They were nice and new, and apparently finally built to code. A geographic specialist from a local university explained to us that the levees should have been built to a depth of “x number of feet”- however, the Army Corps of Civil Engineers has only dug down “y number of feet”. This decision allowed water to seep under the levee, weakening the land, and eventually led to the collapse. The federal government has since recognized this error and built the new sections of the collapsed levees to their appropriate depth. So whats the problem? Miles of the old levees are still at the original depth- simply ensuring a different part of the levee will collapse next time.
The other major issue I encountered was a program where the federal government was offering homeowners 50% of the post Katrina value of their homes– then the home would be demolished, declared a “green space”, and never be built on again. In short, the government is trying to buy off homeowners instead of planning to protect the city- and even worse- is only offering 50% of post Katrina value (how much can a pile of 2′ by 4’s be worth?). How are these people to get a new home with such a pittance?
I went to Mississippi thinking that my prior time in the area had wizened me to the reality of the region- the problems, causes, implications, and solutions. But this time I came face to face not with project foremen on building projects, but with real people in need. I learned of tragedy and corruption and came home with a different kind of Mississippi mud on my boots. This is my attempt to at least spread awareness of the severity of the situation three years out. The woman who had lost her father to a FEMA trailer, and told her soon to be 7-year old before us that there was no money for his birthday party this week, asked us with tears in her eyes to not forget them, and to be her voice. It is a request I can not deny.
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