Katrina–the Tragedy Continues

Today I spent the day driving through
neighborhoods in New Orleans affected by Katrina. The smallscreen cannot fully
capture the magnitude of the big reality.

Today I spent more than four hours with a group of bishops and disaster specialists driving through neighborhoods left damaged by Katrina in New Orleans. Even after seeing the extensive coverage of the disaster, I came away thinking that the small screen cannot fully capture the magnitude of this huge story. From St. Bernard’s Parish, to Lakeside, the lower Ninth Ward, the Ninth Ward, Eastside and beyond, the damage goes on and on. We saw one entire neighborhood bulldozed to the ground, a site almost incomprehensible in a modern U.S. city.

Many houses look as if they are in move-in condition, until you see that they are mere shells, gutted in anticipation of reconstruction, and others are total wrecks with nothing salvageable, especially in the Lower Ninth. Virtually all contain mold that may make them uninhabitable.

Many areas have been inaccessble due to toxicity, structural danger and blocked roads. Even now main thoroughfares are not useable and traffic is a nightmare. Some neighborhoods still lack electricity. Officials say they can’t turn on the power until they can be sure ruptured gas lines have been repaired and other flammables won’t be ignited. Only yesterday a body was retrieved in one of the houses we visited.

Assessment of structural damage to buildings such as local churches is just beginning. Once completed this will tell church leaders much about the replacement challenge they face, but they still face uncertainty. How do you make a decision about where to rebuild when you can’t be sure if people will be allowed to come back to the neighborhood? It’s a catch 22.

Some in our group, many who once lived and served in Louisiana, wondered aloud just how much of New Orleans can be reclaimed, and how much should be. It’s easy for an outsider with no emotional connection to these neighborhoods to write such a blase’ statement, but for them it was a more personal and tragic question. For those who grew up here, love this city and want to come back, it’s much harder. But the structural studies are only a first step. Other assessments such as soil toxicity must be completed, and toxic soil removed and disposed of.

We saw one crew outfitted in hazmat gear removing toxic debris. This isn’t a chore for unskilled volunteers and it’s time-consuming and labor-intensive.

Mold eradication must be carried out. Infrastructure–water, sewer, electric and roads–must be repaired. And only then will it be safe to begin reconstruction.

This is the task that New Orleans faces. I don’t see how it can happen quickly, especially considering the incompetence so graphically demonstrated by so many in official positions so far.

And it will be costly. Reconstructing New Orleans must be put against the backdrop of an ongoing war in Iraq that is sucking money out of the economy in a torrent.

The tragedy in New Orleans isn’t over. It continues. Lives are disrupted. People are dislocated and physical damage remains to be repaired. The tragedy of Katrina continues.

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