It's a late Friday afternoon, nearly two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, when I decide it's time to go online to file my FEMA aid application. The day before, President Bush held a news conference proclaiming how he was helping families cut through the red tape and get the emergency funds they needed. I went to fema.gov and starting filling out the paperwork. Moments later, the site crashed.
We'd endured worse, but that seemed to symbolize how frustrating it's all been.
For Tuesday, Aug. 30, had destroyed my hopes. In a crowded Memphis hotel room sitting on the edge of a bed with three other adults and three dogs, I listened as CNN's Jeanne Meserve tearfully described the pleading voices from rooftops and we watched New Orleans' Ninth Ward and Lakefront flood with water and wading victims. I was overwhelmed by the devastation. The teacup nightmare, the one we had related for years to tourists and visiting friends with a playful resignation, had come true.
Over a beer and with the rapt attention of our listeners, we would explain how New Orleans was like a teacup -- as everyone knows now, the city sits below sea level and the levees designed to keep out approaching water are its sides. In the event of a hurricane of category four or above, the levee system would likely fail, and the city would be inundated with water with nowhere to go. Death and destruction would follow.
I grew up in Buffalo, so I'm accustomed to the occasional natural disaster. My wife, Beth, and I were visiting in November 2000 when the Thanksgiving week blizzard came through. Candidly, I have to admit I kind of enjoyed it. My friend Buck and I rescued his car on that night when most of the city was choked with stranded cars and motorists.
I've always admired the way Buffalonians pitch in, helping their fellow citizens and digging the city out from the snow. That evening was no exception -- people directed cars out of the way, kids found shelter at school and by Wednesday the city was open and we were flying back to New Orleans. The recovery took less than three days.
Now I'm back in Buffalo, a New Orleans evacuee.
My brother still lives here, thank goodness. Yet there's no quick fix for me, and my new hometown may never recover.
The days immediately following Katrina only brought more anger, fear and despair.
By now, we were talking back to the television reports that showed the looting, the suffering of our friends and neighbors, and our beloved city sinking. I saw the submerged downtown, where I worked for the New Orleans Public Library as a children's librarian. I wanted to be there, and I will always feel guilty for not being there, but there was another whose absence was more powerfully felt. Where was President Bush and the federal aid and leadership he represents?
Weren't we more important than a vacation in Crawford? Time was running out. My family was lucky enough to be able to flee Katrina, but many, poor people, destitute and without transportation, were forced to stay. The city was ignored.
We shouted along with the crowds gathered at the New Orleans' Convention Center for help. We defended those looting stores for food, water and diapers. We cried along with the man who told a reporter how his wife had let go of his hand and floated away forever. We echoed our mayor, Ray Nagin, who angrily said, "Get off your asses and let's do something and let's fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country."
We called everyone we knew from New Orleans to make sure they were safe. We couldn't reach Beth's mother, who had stayed behind in Picayune, Miss. My brother-in-law, Henry, was with her. He has type one diabetes and needs daily doses of insulin, which must be refrigerated. On Friday when troops, boats, helicopters and supplies finally arrived, we put away our anger and thanked the thousands who came to help.
Sunday night Beth's mother called; she and Henry were fine. A neighbor with a generator kept Henry's insulin cool. My wife cried and repeated over and over, "My God, it's good to hear your voice."
Up until the Tuesday morning after the storm, we felt pretty good. Katrina had blown through New Orleans, but she hadn't directly hit us. Although we had taken a bullet, it wasn't fatal. Beth, Claire, our 20-month-old daughter, and I would be back in a couple of weeks, we figured. Public utilities would be restored, and we could start cleaning up. I believed the city would bounce back quickly.
The previous Friday evening we had made our decision to evacuate. Ray and Monique Busche, who is seven months pregnant, and their 2 1/2 -year-old daughter Olivia had teamed up with us the year before when we left New Orleans under the threat of Hurricane Ivan. It had worked well, with Beth, Monique and the girls going in one car, and Ray, the dogs and me heading up a day later after boarding up our houses. Luckily, we managed to reserve rooms at a hotel that accommodated dogs.
> On the road
It is now nearly three weeks since Katrina landed. After staying in Memphis for three days, our tribe wandered further north to Cincinnati. Ray is originally from there, and his parents welcomed us. From there, our families separated, and we came to Buffalo. Eventually, we will travel to Washington, D.C., to live with Beth's sister. Beth is a physical therapist and opened her own clinic in August. She will try to get licensed in Virginia so she can practice.
I'll take care of Claire and write the occasional freelance article.
Much of what is happening now doesn't convey the immediate tragedy of the first few days. Evacuees moved to other cities to begin new lives; the country wrapped its collective arms around us, and the many caring volunteers, police and military will pump out the city, restore order and bury the dead. The tragedy isn't quite as palpable, but it lingers.
There are thousands of families displaced. These include the desperately poor, who have no homes, income, little formal education, few job skills and no plans for the future. Before Katrina, they lived hand-to-mouth, and Katrina has only made that base existence more difficult. Cities welcoming these indigent victims must realize the tremendous task ahead of them. These people need more than temporary shelter, food and even, as Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra said, "Love."
They require more permanent assistance like education, job training, homes and free health care. And even with productive social services, they will still suffer the loss of dead or displaced family members, mental anguish, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the daunting challenge of building better lives. Some will choose to never return to their native city, but most will have no choice, the harsh reality of the impoverished depending on government aid.The middle class, like my family, will have to rely on federal assistance as well.
Insurance settlements and private donations will help us to rebuild our homes, but what about the city's infrastructure: roads, bridges, hospitals, schools and most important, concrete protection from future hurricanes? Why restore our city if our new homes and lives are still at risk?
> On our own
The Bush administration demonstrated its disdain for New Orleans with its inadequate and terribly slow reaction to the crisis. Plus, to finance the war in Iraq, the president slashed funding for the Southeast Louisiana Flood Control Project, which is a $700 million federal effort to increase the flow of water through New Orleans canals and pumping stations.
The president all but declared we were on our own. Even though New Orleans is one of the nation's largest and most valuable ports, it wasn't enough to ensure our protection. People in places like Buffalo should keep that in mind when wondering how much the federal government is protecting them from not only natural disasters but also terrorist attacks. FEMA falls under the Department of Homeland Security.
On a local level, New Orleans made its share of mistakes during the catastrophe, but it's hard to say they could have been avoided. Much of this is due to complacency, dumb luck and lack of time. For decades, we were extremely fortunate -- Hurricanes Ivan, Georges and others made last-minute turns, sparing the city -- and unconsciously we decided our luck would hold.
This time the storm took a turn for the worst, and we had less than 48 hours to leave. A massive convoy of school buses, trucks and vans evacuating people would have been impossible.
To illustrate my point, think of this scenario. The entire population of the Buffalo metropolitan area has to be evacuated because of a potential attack and 100,000 of these people have no means of transportation. Who has the authority to commandeer the vehicles and organize the plan? Who is driving the buses?
Maybe more could have done by the local government, but who was listening? Many New Orleanians -- especially older folks who had ridden out Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the last time New Orleans was really hit by a storm -- felt they, along with their homes, would survive.
How many of us really pay attention when the terror alert is raised from yellow to orange?
You're probably wondering why I haven't brought up the racial factor.
Believe me; I do feel it played a role in this disaster. If the faces on the television screen were white, the reaction would have been more swift and complete. I don't think people would have waited as long inside a deteriorating Super Dome, and no one would have died in the Convention Center. While I do recognize the problem, I can't offer much in terms of solutions.
Racial tensions were already high in New Orleans this past summer with accusations of prejudice against blacks by French Quarter bars and restaurants. Eddie Jordan, the city's district attorney, lost a federal discrimination lawsuit for firing dozens of white employees when he took office in 2003.
In New Orleans there is segregation, but compared to other cities, we live very close to one another. My own block is a mixture although often when neighbors chat, there is rarely more than one color involved. Many of my closest friends at work, including Geraldine Harris, who always asks me, "How's my baby, Claire," are African American. Still, the majority of the wealthy business owners are white and the poorest people are black. Our friend and fellow evacuee, Monique, is African American; Ray, her husband, is white.
Maybe their daughter Olivia and her soon-to-arriving sibling are the beginning of a solution.
> Waiting and more waiting
Most of what my friends and I are now experiencing, I call anxious inertia. We want to know for certain if our homes are lost -- ours likely is, since a computer model reveals the neighborhood was more than 7 1/2 feet underwater -- and spend much of our day on hold, waiting to make insurance claims, delaying pending bills, filling out FEMA and Red Cross applications, e-mailing and calling fellow survivors and evacuees.
I have heard from many who won't hold back their anger toward the ongoing chaotic bureaucracy. One woman, who has already moved her family six times and hasn't received any federal assistance, instructs her daughters not to use that four-letter word, FEMA.
A good friend, Rudy, and his fiance, Nicole, were given $360 checks and a hot meal by the Red Cross. He was grateful, but the money won't go very far, and the irony of getting a check for $360 when his life has changed 360 degrees left him speechless.
My wife called our mortgage company requesting a deferment. She was told the company isn't granting any, but they wouldn't charge us any late fees for three months. Great. I'm paying on a house I no longer can inhabit, and I still haven't found a place for my family to live. Atthis point, I'm one of the fortunate, the city continues to pay me. But at times of dark thoughts, I wonder if there will be any books left for the children who need them; and what's going to happen to the program we had where volunteers who went out to read to Head Start children, trying to attack widespread illiteracy at its root.
Like Katrina, my emotions and opinions are an unpredictable swirling maelstrom. Some moments are great, like when my wife's business partner and her family somehow showed up at the same Memphis hotel we were staying in. Beth's clinic has little damage and the business will recover. Friends and strangers gave us clothes and money and bought us dinner. We have been reluctant to accept, but we are thankful for the generosity.
As furiously as Katrina blew off our rooftops and scattered our lives, the veneer of society flew away as well. Chaos and anarchy flooded in. Was there anything more we could have done and is there anything Buffalo could do now? Yes. We could have better prepared New Orleans' struggling lower class by making them more self-sufficient in the event of inevitable disaster.
Evacuation plans, employment and education would have made a difference on a larger scale, and everyday kindnesses and charity -- things that Buffalonians are currently doing and should be doing -- are great investments in your community. Check in on elderly neighbors, give blood and teach a child how to read. If you're not sure how you can help, a call to the United Way will get you started. A society is only as strong as its most vulerable members, and New Orleans is now paying for the huge disparity between the rich and the poor. Regret has become as much a part of my days now as a cup of coffee.
Other times I explode at the news reports, editorials and letters to the editor that claim to know what's wrong with New Orleans -- they know how to fix it or they suggest it should never be rebuilt. I have lived in the Crescent City for 11 years; I can't pinpoint my city's problems and I'm not sure how to fix them. All I really know is I'd like to start trying and I'd like to go home.
David Winkler-Schmit, who lived in Buffalo for 26 years, is coordinator of children's and youth services for the New Orleans Public Library system.