Sunday, September 04, 2005

Katrina: New Orleans will Never be the Same

The news shows pictures of mass flooding, destruction and helicopters rescuing stranded people from rooftops. It gives those that feel abandon a voice to cry out for the help that didn't immediately come.

In reading and listing to various news broadcasts on the aftermath of Katrina, politicians and reporters suggest it will be months before things become normal again. But I don't see that happening. Beyond the infrastructure damage, lives have permanently changed.

It is easy to assume jobs are gone, houses are gone, memories in the form of pictures and souvenirs have been washed away. These will never come back.

But what of the memories and mentalities of the people who lived through the experience, or those that won't return to their destroyed neighborhoods? The entire structure of their daily lives will have changed. The familiar faces at grocery stores, the regulars at the local coffee shops, the favorite bars; These rhythms have been washed away, and will never return as they were.

The people of the city have scattered across the nation, to Texas, Alabama and in other places. The school year is starting, and even school-aged children will have to spread to many different schools for the education system to be able to absorb them. Will their parents be able to find jobs where their children have been relocated? Will the children have to switch schools again to follow their parents?

In the past two days I read "A Woman in Berlin, Eight Weeks in a Conquered City" a book whose author has been kept anonymous, translated by Philip Boehm. Up to and right after the Russian capture of Berlin in World War II, a female journalist tracked the tales - often of rape and the methods of daily survival.

As I read, I couldn't help but compare what was written about the struggles of life and the pictures I saw on television of the wrath of Katrina - often described as a war zone. For sure, some things must run parallel.

"Fire! Fire!" We ran outside, where everything was lit up and glaring bright. Flames were shooting out of the ruined basement two houses down the street, licking at the firewall of the neighboring house, which was still intact. Acrid smoke came streaming out of a hole in the ruins and creeping up the street. The block was swarming with shadows, civilians. Shouts and cries.

What to do? There's no water. The superheated air was blasting out of the basement like searing wind, exactly as during the nighttime air raids, which is why no one got very excited. "Smother it," people said. "Let's cover it with rubble." In no time we'd formed two chains. People passed chunks of stone from hand to hand, and the last person tossed them into the flames. - 159

Such a passage could almost be from either place - Berlin or New Orleans. It makes me wonder what personal stories may come out later about the current disaster - or of the stories that are never told. For the woman of Berlin, her book has now come out a second time roughly 50 years after the war. It deals with topics that society of the time brushed under the carpet - of the rape that came to the women of Berlin - a topic that made German men feel impotent to the strength of the conquering army. The woman's experience shamed her so much that even after her death, her name remains secret.

In New Orleans, we know people grabbed guns, shot at police. What else went on?

Today in the New York Times I read that two police officers committed suicide - we can only assume from being left helpless against the never ending floodwaters, lack of better assistance and the sheer immensity of it all. More than 200 officers have walked off their jobs, the Times reported. What did they see they could not handle?

As in the book, once the regular infrastructure of life gives out, such as electricity, water, law and order, the world falls back into the phrase often used in the book - the stone age. And with the the civility gained in more modern ties is also left behind as people struggle to meet their daily needs of food, water, medicine and simple assurance of a positive future. Life can become animal, logic abandon for instinct.

So what of the people of New Orleans? What stories will rise up out of the destruction of lives and houses and the city - in its both physical and societal sense? Certainly, the devastation and feelings of helplessness, abandonment and hunger have been ingrained in the souls of those left behind.


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