Saturday, February 18, 2006

Ok. This is Kind of Boring, But Who Can Pass Up Spacechicken Articles?

A Valentine from New Orleans
By Starhawk

Saturday Night, we went down to the French Quarter and saw the first walking parade of the Mardi Gras season. The parades are sponsored and carried out by groups called Krewes, and Krewe de Vieux is known for its irreverence and satire. The theme this year was Katrina, and the satire was lively. Most memorable float—probably the last one, Mandatory Ejaculation, with a giant vagina on the cart and lots of people carrying sperm on sticks, white balls with long wiggly tales, behind.

I went down with Sue and Juniper, and Scotty who promised to desert us in favor of some of his younger friends. It was great to see the streets filled with people, to be crushed in the crowd and to hear the drums and follow the parade. The French Quarter is a perfect setting, with its narrow streets and high balconies that turn the whole city into a stage. If I ever get to design a city, I will be thinking about how to make it work for parades and processions, demonstrations and insurrections, with maybe a few hidden bowers for lovers here and there. At last I got to hear jazz, with band after band parading through the streets, trumpets and trombones and drummers with those lively, syncopated rhythms that make your feet dance. You can’t help but feel happy when that music is playing. After huge traumas and great sorrows, music knits the world together again, and that’s what the jazz musicians and the singers of blues know how to do.

After the parade, eight of us went out to dinner. Somehow, once we squeezed past the crowded, smoky bar, the restaurant was quiet, the food was delicious—gumbo and shrimp creole and good wine. Melissa, who was born and raised here, was in her element—at last our whole workaholic cluster had relaxed enough to go out to dinner and experience a bit of the culture she loves.

Monday we saw another face of New Orleans. It was the day that FEMA hotel vouchers ran out, and people were being evicted. Common Ground set up a demonstration at City Hall, prepared to put up a tent city if local residents requested it. I stayed there much of the morning, while we waited to here if an injunction would be issued to stave off the evictions. The injunction was denied. I heard some of the sad tales of FEMA incompetence and bureaucratic nightmares: the woman who had a job in New Orleans but no housing, who was offered a shelter in Shreveport by FEMA but then would lose her job, and who wanted to stay together with her family. The woman whose sign for the demonstration was a board from her house, who had a voucher from FEMA for a hotel room up until March 1, but couldn’t find an hotel in town that would accept the voucher. Later, Sue came home from a long day with the sad tale of the man who was evicted from his hotel. FEMA wouldn’t pay for a room but, in the only incidence of efficiency I’ve ever heard attributed to them. Immediately issued him a plane ticket to Illinois where he had family. It might seem that they were eager to get people out of town, were it not for their unwillingness to issue him a cab voucher or give him any help to get to the airport. Sue drove him, helping him sort out all of his worldly possessions, which were in clear, plastic bags, and fit what he could into a suitcase.

Today, Valentine’s Day, I spent taking samples of soil from some of the most toxic sites in New Orleans—a romantic occupation if ever there was one! The EPA tested most of the neighborhoods here, but is refusing to go back and retest, a pretty standard procedure, saying that access is too difficult. Juniper and Jen combed through the EPA data to actually identify twenty or so of the most toxic sites, and trained a group of us to take the samples. The sites are street corners, peoples’ back yards, schoolyards. We wear protective boots and carefully keep the soil we scoop up from getting contaminated and record all the necessary data. I am the photographer and recorder on our team. Mark, the driver and chief sampler, is an experienced biologist who has done this before, so it goes quickly. The samples will be sent back to Washington DC, where the National Resource Defense Council will at some point hold a press conference and present the samples to the EPA.

I am overwhelmed at the scope of the destruction I’ve seen. We go into areas I haven’t visited, and I hadn’t realized what vast sections of the city are still deserted, still in ruins, still fully of collapsed homes and sediment covered yards. Miles and miles of desolation stretch out from the city’s core. Block after block of public housing, still standing but boarded up and shuttered. Someone went to a lot of trouble to board each door and window—I can’t help but wonder why they didn’t spend the same energy to fix the places up and bring people home. Street after street is still empty. Here and there a FEMA trailer sits in a yard, but most are deserted, at least during the week while their owners are elsewhere trying to hold down a job, coming into the city on weekends to work on gutting the house. Vast stretches of strip mall leading out of town are in ruins. And the lower Ninth Ward is a shambles of wrecked homes and cars. Little has changed since we drove through in October, except that now a huge mound of garbage sits on the streets in front of every house still standing: the whole contents of a family’s life mixed with the broken sticks of their structure. Stir with mold and let sit for weeks: a recipe for despair.


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