Sunday, November 14, 2010

Spreading trouble over oiled waters

*This was the day we forgot to bring the camera. Our apologies.*

On a small sign in a restaurant window under the B in the BP logo for British Petroleum is printed the word Bitch, followed by Please.
People are unfailingly polite in Louisiana, with ready smiles and cheerful service, so it requires a little closer scrutiny to realize they also have a temper, one that fate has pushed to the limit.
There are smaller signs here and there, in restaurants or the front windows of seafood stores, urging you to buy Gulf seafood, saying that it is indeed fine and tasty and safe to eat, even after BP spilled oil all over these salt waters and marshes.
When we walk up to the window of a kiosk in the French Quarter of what we now know is pronounced N’Awlins, the vendor is on the phone, painstakingly explaining to a friend how to file a claim for loss of income to BP.
“I really didn’t think it would work or anythin’ but might as well file,” he says, with the ever-ready, gap-toothed smile, adding he received a cheque for $15,000 three days after filing.
He steers us to a city tour bus where our guide, Wanda, take us through the French Quarter and the above-ground cemeteries and other tourist highlights, but also spends one precious hour of a three-hour city circuit in the Lower 9th Ward, the city area hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. As we drive through neighbourhoods where houses stand abandoned, holes punched through their roofs where residents sat waiting up to five days to be rescued, it’s difficult to believe it has been five years since the storm hit.
And Wanda is still mad: at the Army Corps of Engineers because the retaining walls — built in the 1930s to keep the canals from floodng — were not maintained according to original agreements; at politicians who dithered on how to help people; at FEMA for supplying trailers for the homeless — some trailers still in place — that unleashed such dangerous levels of formaldehyde that changes were made in trailer manufacturing; at the use of drywall made in China, since proven to be from compressed garbage and a health hazard, so that some of the dismal amount of new construction has had to be redone.
And it is a pathetic amount of rebuilding.
There were 180,000 residents of the Lower 9th Ward the day Katrina hit.
Today, there are 18,000 people living there, and no businesses exist in the area,
“It wasn’t Katrina, the storm, that did the damage here,” she says, a hint of steel in that southern drawl. “Katrina damaged the coast, those areas, so badly. Here, it was the walls breaching. It was the barges allowed to anchor in the canal that broke loose and punched holes in the walls.”
When she says Army Corps of Engineers, the venom is palpable.
And, she says, “If y’all are starting to blame the federal government, that’s not what we do here. We start with our mayor, who ended up in the insane asylum, and then we move on to our governor. She knew what was happening and she said she’d get back to us with decisions in a few days.”
Wanda talks of federal aid that was available — past tense. Residents could demolish what was left of their home and have it carted away. But that aid has ended so what is left standing is now the owner’s problem. In some areas there are more vacant lots than houses left standing, and Wanda points out this was a neighbourhood of houses very close together.
As you look at what’s left, you picture a family sitting on that roof, wet and hungry, and waiting, at times as long as five days.
As Canadians, at the time we wondered where the federal help was when it became painfully apparent people weren’t receiving assistance from their city or state.
As the Canadians among the 15 silent people on the bus, we wonder where the U.S. federal government is today.
But then Wanda takes a turn or two to show us the spirit of New Orleans, the spirit of individuals determined to stay. There is a house where the owner picked up a variety of musical instruments from the water, dried them out and displays them.
There is a street lined with brightly coloured houses, each a different colour but the same design, that were built specifically for musicians with the help of both musician Harry Connick Jr, and Habitat for Humanity.
There is the refurbished home of Fats Domino, with that big FD over the front door, showing where the then 77-year-old music icon waited with his family on his roof for rescue.
Around another corner are the “green” houses, built to energy-efficient standards with solar panels in evidence, that were designed and constructed under a program begun by actor Brad Pitt. Students from Iowa State University sit on curbs in the midst of ongoing construction, sketching the designs and innovative technology.
These houses are built one storey up in the air, on pylons that are sunk 30 feet into the ground, so that any future waters can swirl below without damaging the structure. Wanda points to a brand-new American flag in front of one home, which the homeowner raised when his new house was finished. It replaced the one flying the day the waters rose.
But she also points to the tombstone at the feet of the new flag, placed there to honour the homeowner’s daughter and wife, who fell into those swirling waters and drowned.
Bitch. Please.

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