The kindness of strangers

NEW ORLEANS – It looks better. It really does. No longer do you see cars on top of houses, boats marooned in the middle of the street, piles and piles of personal possessions – a teddy bear here, a child’s slipper there, poignantly reminding you that real people lived here. The vast devastated area of New Orleans and neighboring St. Bernard looks tidy now, almost pretty. In land so fertile that wooden fence posts often sprout shoots, a grey-green covering of grasses and reeds quickly filled the space where homes once stood, some of them for generations.

It’s eerily quiet still. Where music blared out of bars or traffic whizzed past shopping malls, now birdcalls mix with the occasional hammer as the only sounds for miles. On some streets, one or two intrepid homeowners have rebuilt, their houses standing as islands in the boarded up, broken down sea around them. Driving past shuttered schools, padlocked post offices and sealed-up stores, it seems impossible that it’s been almost two years since the winds of Katrina followed by the waters of the levee breaks wrecked whole sections of this wonderful old city that is Cokie’s hometown.



Remarkable for their resilience, the residents of New Orleans remain incongruously upbeat. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation (where Cokie’s on the board) found more than half of the people in the area affected by the hurricane saying they were worse off financially than before the storm, but almost 70 percent expressing optimism about the future. Restaurant and hotel owners have put their money where their hearts are and valiantly re-created the world-class eateries for which the city is famous. A good time can certainly still be had by all.

So there’s a mixed message coming from New Orleans boosters: Everything’s OK, please come with your conventions and your cash. Versus: Here we are after almost two years, desolate and feeling deserted by government at every level. Both messages are true.

Despite federal government appropriations of close to $150 billion for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita relief, the money isn’t getting to the people who need it. And as families anxious to return tell tales of the Kafkaesque process of filling out forms for funds to rebuild, and then filling out different forms and then frustratedly doing it again, more and more people dealing in essential services are turning to the private sector.

The state of health care and education was, to put it politely, challenging in the pre-Katrina era. In a district where almost 90 percent of the students are eligible for the school lunch program, a survey of the 2004-2005 school year found a 50 percent absenteeism rate among teachers. Now Orleans Parish School Board President Phyllis Landrieu is trying to start at the beginning by enlisting corporations and nonprofits in a comprehensive program for kids from newborns to age 5. “If Louisiana supported children to the extent that they should, then we wouldn’t need these special programs,” she told us. In the absence of adequate state support, Landrieu’s calling on the consciences of citizens.

Before the storm, for almost all of the city’s poor, the “doctor” was Charity Hospital, an enormous establishment overburdened by its patient load. The huge hulk of hurricane-damaged building will never re-open. Instead, doctors and health care workers have established or beefed up neighborhood clinics open to all.

At St. Thomas Community Health Center, in the city’s “Irish Channel,” Dr. Don Erwin describes how businesses, foundations, faith-based organizations and individual donors have helped turn what was a small clinic originally established for and by residents of the country’s largest public housing project into the primary care facility for thousands of the city’s poor.

But even in New Orleans, citizens shouldn’t have to depend on the kindness of strangers. And no matter how efficient and how worthy they may be, charitable organizations can’t build levees. For all their hopefulness about the future, residents tell Kaiser pollsters that their biggest concern – more than housing, health care, schools or even crime – is the state of the levees. As the hurricane season moves into its most dangerous phase, the federal government must make sure those essential protectors of America’s most intriguing city and vital port are up to the task.

Then, with another hurricane season safely survived, and the continued kindness of strangers, the rebuilding will be reality.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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