New Orleans Unrecovered

Recovery eludes New Orleans. Despite
progress toward renewal in some areas the city remains a population in
waiting.

Standing on a median strip in front of the Ernest C. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans yesterday, passing traffic drowned out the voices of the board of the National Council of Churches offering a prayer for recovery. It was a normal city scene until Wade Rathke, a local aid coordinator, pointed out where water had lapped at the windowsills of buildings and said, “This is where people laid down to die. Women, little children, those who could run no further from the water.”

Then he pointed down Convention Center Boulevard to an overpass that was named the “Bridge of Desperation.” It was one of the bridges on which New Orleaneans sought safe haven after the levees broke. Fear turned to despair when no one came to their rescue. All the images came back and I realized that the life and death drama that occurred here made this scruffy piece of land between traffic lanes sacred space.

Despite television ads to the contrary, New Orleans is not back. Yes, the casino is open and the French Quarter is a bit of its old self. But whole neighborhoods are still uninhabited. People are still living in tiny trailers. The diaspora has not begun to return in great numbers.

Stories of frustration with insurance companies and government are so common they’ve become part of local lore. Small businesses that once depended upon heavy tourist traffic are struggling. One shopkeeper told me her sales last week equalled one half day’s sales before the storm. She will close down soon.

But there is also a positive word here and I’ve heard it consistently. The religious community has made a difference. A Special Commission for the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, chaired by Bishop Mel Talbert of The United Methodist Church, reported on contacts it has had with policy-makers and local persons in the hurricane-affected area. He laid out additional work for the future.

Volunteers have helped those displaced and homeless. They have cleaned debris and gutted houses. They have continued to come in a steady stream. They work hard, and they give. To those who are no closer to getting back into their homes than they were eight months ago, this is some comfort. The awareness that they’re not forgotten is a degree of consolation.

We heard a meditation that seemed especially relevant with text from 2 Corinthians 4 in which Paul writes, “We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized;…we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t been broken.

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