August 29th, 2007

We Are Still Not OK

I don't really want to make an entry today -- I want to cancel this day every year for the rest of my life, actually -- but I'd be remiss if I didn't say something. So I decided to offer an update of my list (originally posted on March 31, 2006) of 13 Reasons Why We Are Not OK. When I first posted it here and on the neworleans community, it was disseminated far and wide (which made me happy) and brought the prime_liquor community a particularly virulent troll, an admittedly abusive mother from southwest Louisiana who claimed to have done post-Katrina/Rita volunteer work, but nevertheless decided for some reason that I was her worst enemy (which didn't make me happy, but what the hell; no matter what you do or why you do it, there are always going to be scumsuckers out there who try to make you feel shitty for it). We'll see what kind of effects it has this time, if any.

13 Reasons Why We Are Not OK

1. Most of the city is still officially uninhabitable. We and most other current New Orleanians live in what is sometimes known as The Sliver By The River, a section between the Mississippi River and St. Charles Avenue that didn't flood, as well as in the French Quarter and part of the Faubourg Marigny. In the "uninhabitable sections," there are hundreds of people living clandestinely in their homes with no lights, power, or (in many cases) drinkable water. They cannot afford generators or the gasoline it takes to run them, or if they have generators, they can only run them for part of the day. They cook on camp stoves and light their homes with candles or oil lamps at night.

Power and water have been restored to every part of the city, which is certainly not to say that every individual home has these services. There are still people living in darkened, waterless shells of homes. Since moving out of the relatively sheltered Sliver by the River and into the very different world of Central City, I've learned that there are also people living without these services (particularly water) as a matter of course, not because the services are unavailable but because the people have fallen too far behind on their bills and cannot afford the charge to have them turned back on. I've spread the word that neighborhood folks are welcome to take water from our outside tap, and often hear/see them trudging away with containers in their hands.

2. There is a minimal police presence, and most of it is concentrated in the Sliver. Homes in other parts of the city are still being looted, vandalized, and burned.

Police presence has improved, but the NOPD still doesn't have the officers it needs or the budget to hire them. Check out this recent news story about a near-rapist in the French Quarter who strolled casually away from the scene of his crime as a concerned citizen followed him, desperately trying to get cops on the scene. The story contains the following quote from the concerned citizen: "The cops told me to go to the press. The cops were like, 'We need this out there.' They don't have the capacity."

3. Many parts of the city have had no trash pickup -- either FEMA or municipal -- for weeks. Things improved for a while, but now there are nearly as many piles of debris and stinking garbage as there were right after the storm.

Trash pickup is probably better than it's ever been, but in typical New Orleans tempest-in-a-teapot fashion, French Quarter activists are complaining about the size of the new cans (which really are too large for people living in tiny apartments with narrow alleyways) and the Nagin administration has made no real attempt to accomodate them.

4. There are no street lights in many of the "uninhabited" sections, which makes for very dark nights for their residents.

We're still a fairly dark city, but far better-lit than we were in March '06.

5. Many of the stoplights, including some at large, busy intersections, still don't work. They have become four-way stops (with small, hard-to-see stop signs propped up near the ground) and there are countless wrecks.

From what I can see, most of the stoplights are working most of the time. There's still a flasher at the fairly major intersection of St. Charles and Washington Avenues, but that has something to do with repairs on the St. Charles streetcar line, which currently only runs to Lee Circle but is supposed to go all the way to Napoleon Avenue by this fall. I can't speak for sections of the city I don't get to very often, such as Lakeview and New Orleans East.

6. There is hardly any medical care in the city. As far as I know, only two hospitals and an emergency facility in the convention center are currently operating. Emergency room patients, even those having serious symptoms like chest pains, routinely wait eight hours or more to be seen by a doctor. We have, I believe, 600 hospital beds in a city whose population is approaching (and may have surpassed) 250,000.

More hospitals and private doctors are open for business, but the state of our medical care is still pretty dire. In a city where almost everybody is going crazy in one way or another, there's virtually no help for mental patients, who are usually either held in emergency rooms or jailed. State Attorney General Charles Foti failed in his attempted case against Memorial Medical Center doctors and other medical personnel who stayed through the storm and were accused of euthanizing elderly patients, but Foti's idiocy will probably drive medical personnel out of the city at a time when we desperately need them, and will certainly ensure that fewer will stay through the next storm.

7. Most grocery stores, many drugstores, and countless other important retail establishments are only open until 5, 6, or at best 8:00 PM because of the lack of staffing. This is only an inconvenience for me, but it's crippling for people who work "normal" hours.

Most places have extended their hours until 9:00 or 10:00 PM, but there is only one 24-hour drugstore (the big Walgreen's on St. Charles) and still no 24-hour grocery store.

8. The city's recycling program has been suspended indefinitely. We talk about restoring the wetlands that could buffer us from another storm surge, but every day we throw away tons of recyclables that will end up in the landfills that help poison our wetlands.

The city's recycling program is still suspended indefinitely. The wetlands continue to disappear.

9. Cadaver dogs and youth volunteers gutting houses are still finding bodies in the Lower Ninth Ward. Of course these corpses are just skeletons by now -- the other day they found a six-year-old girl with an older person, possibly a grandmother, located near her -- and they may never be identified. The bodies are hidden under debris piles and collapsed houses. This is in the same section of town that some of the politicians are aching to bulldoze.

Much of the Lower Ninth Ward has been bulldozed, ending any possibility that further bodies will be found.

10. Thousands of people who lived in public housing were forcibly removed from their homes. It is now being suggested by much of the current power structure, including our very liberal Councilman at Large Oliver Thomas, that they not be allowed back into these homes unless they can prove they had jobs before the storm or are willing to sign up for job training. (Many of you may agree with this, and I did too, sort of, until I really thought about it. Hadn't they already qualified for the housing? What about the ones who had jobs that don't exist anymore? How can they find jobs in New Orleans if they don't live here?)

Only one housing project has reopened, and few other provisions have been made for low-income housing.

11. There are still flooded, wrecked, and abandoned cars all over the streets, parked in the neutral grounds, and in many cases partly submerged in the canals out East. Now that it's campaign time, Mayor Nagin is trying to come up with a solution for this, but he thinks maybe we should wait for FEMA to do it (!!!!!) and he claims the best removal offer he's gotten so far was "written on the back of a napkin."

Most of the abandoned cars are gone, but you can still find one pretty easily if you spend a little time looking. Hell, you can even still see boats lying around -- I pass by one every time I come home from the post office.

12. Many of the FEMA trailers -- you know, the ones costing taxpayers $70,000 each -- have been delivered to homeless New Orleanians but cannot be lived in because the city doesn't have enough people to come out and do electrical inspections, and the trailers need a separate hookup instead of being hooked into the house's power supply, and a dozen other damn fool things. While these trailers sit empty, there is an easily constructed, far more attractive structure called a "Katrina cottage" that could easily be built all over south Louisiana. It costs about $25,000 less than the flimsy, uncomfortable trailers. FEMA refuses to use it because they're not allowed to provide permanent housing.

Lots of people are now living in FEMA trailers, which have been discovered to contain dangerously high levels of formaldehyde. Some people have had to move out of them after developing respiratory ailments, skin problems, and possibly cancer. No "Katrina cottages" are forthcoming.

13. A large percentage -- I've heard figures ranging from 60 to 75% -- of current New Orleanians are on some form of antidepressant or anti-anxiety drug. The lines at the pharmacy windows have become a running joke. When a visiting "expert" gave a Power Point presentation on post-traumatic stress disorder recently, the entire audience dissolved into hysterical laughter.

Every month or so we get a news story about how many of us are on antidepressants, how many are abusing drugs or alcohol, etc. The numbers are frighteningly high. The latest buzzword is that we're not having PTSD, but "continuing stress disorder" from living among wreckage and other constant reminders of what happened, still not having levees we can depend on, the increasingly out-of-control cost of living, etc. Many of my close friends are depressed, some so severely that I fear for their lives. (I expect they sometimes fear for mine too, though I think that if I were going to do anything like that, I would have done it last winter.) I myself am still taking two anti-anxiety drugs, Klonopin and Xanax. I've tried to get off them a few times, but since I started having severe panic attacks this spring, I feel more dependent on them than ever.

So there you have it: in some ways we are more OK than we were when I wrote the original post, but we are still not OK, and many of us probably never will be. Of course, the main reason we aren't OK is that 1500+ of us died needlessly, and people continue to suffer and die as a direct result of the failure of the federal levee system.

William Update

Ever since his steroid shot yesterday, William has been energetic, eating well, and just generally seeming righter. I'll be talking to the vet tomorrow morning, but as long as he's doing this well, he's not going anywhere. Thank you for all the good thoughts sent his (and our) way -- I believe they helped.

There was a feature in this morning's paper about "storm angels," people who helped Katrina refugees in various, incredibly generous ways. Chris and I agreed that our storm angels were the Boston Animal Rescue League, who rescued our cats, and the readers of this journal.