Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Katrina Update 18: Press the Pause Button, please.

In her most recent blog entry, Carolyn McCulley writes about something called “The Katrina Pause.” It is the phenomenon being experienced in the most devastated areas of New Orleans - sections still waiting for recovery efforts to begin. Many parts of the New Orleans Metropolitan Area still stand in devastation, and seeing them gives one the sense that a clock was stopped (or a pause button pressed?) shortly after Katrina moved through and time has stood still ever since.

In some areas, not only do they not have electricity, phones, stores (and, thus, people), but some homes and businesses have yet to be touched. Inside the buildings lay jumbles of furniture, clothing, and other personal artifacts, where they came to rest after the water subsided. The only new development is a thick layer of mold and mildew which quickly covered every available surface. The only signs of life are flies, maggots, and, of course, roaches and rodents. Trees either lay fallen or dying with thick, dark rings around their trunks, showing the levels of rising and receding water. The homes that have been visited, cleared out and gutted are still uninhabited, as their former occupants are still living outside of the city waiting on the resources to rebuild or simply because that is where the jobs are. The "lucky" ones have been able to find a place nearby, though they are in the minority. Many New Orleanians are still living an hour or more away from their homes, friends, and family. Countless businesses have relocated to cities as close as Baton Rouge or Covington. Others chose the more distant Houston, Dallas, Jackson, or Atlanta.

In areas not as severely damaged (i.e., those who took in less than 3 feet of water), the pause isn’t as dramatically felt. In those areas, there has been some progress. My parent’s neighborhood had about 1 to 2 feet of flood water, which receded rather quickly. By contrast, the area near my church had 9 to 12 feet of water. The city where many of my elderly aunts and uncles lived had similar water levels. These homes had water either near or beyond their ceilings. Large pieces of furniture were tossed around by the force of rushing water, photos and knickknacks were destroyed, indeed, every worldly possession, including the bare necessities like food and clothing and shoes - not to mention priceless items like photos and heirlooms - were destroyed.

Though my parent’s home didn’t see this degree of destruction, the level of water did cause enough damage to require gutting the house and replacing all of the furniture, mattresses, cabinetry and curtains. Many of their irreplaceable photos and heirlooms are gone, as well. One loss was particularly difficult for my mom. It was a photo collage we made of my grandfather when he died. Many of the best photos of him are now unrecognizably spotted, smudged and shriveled. Despite the losses and the overwhelming feelings we all had upon first seeing the house, they have been able to get in, have power and other utilities restored, and begin the rebuilding process. My aunts and uncles have not been so fortunate.

By God’s mercy my home received no damage. In fact, the area of the city I live in is on a ridge near the River (hence the name River Ridge), and except for a few blue FEMA roofs, it looks as if nothing has happened. Pretty much every home is inhabited, almost all of the businesses are up and running and keeping somewhat regular hours. And this was the case as early as 6 weeks after the storm passed.

It is very easy for those in unaffected or quickly recovered areas to fail to notice The Katrina Pause and, because they are back to life as usual, forget that others are still recovering…or simply hoping to be able to recover soon.

I’ve seen this attitude in cashiers in stores inundated with new customers, heard it in the sounds of honking horns in traffic jams, and experienced it first hand both at work and at home.

My boss lived in a virtually unaffected area of the city. Because of his resources, he was able to move his entire family to Baton Rouge, buy a new home and furnishings and begin the business of running this company. There have been many moments, both during the 3 months we were in Baton Rouge and since we’ve been back home, where the “business as usual” attitude was evident.

At home, it would seem my landlord has this view as well. He lives in the same area of town as me, and his home received minimal damage…mostly fallen trees and a bit of shingle loss. When I first spoke to him after the storm, I asked for permission to house my youngest brother and his family while my parent’s home was being repaired. None of us knew how long it would take for it to be liveable, all we knew was that a moldy, bare-to-the-studs home with exposed wires and nails and all sorts of debris was no place for 3 small children. My parents bought a small camper trailer to live in and parked it in their driveway, and with my landlords initially gracious consent, my brother and his family took up residence in my apartment.

Two weeks before Christmas I received a call from my landlord asking if “those people” were still living with me. This was how he referred to my family every time we spoke after the initial post-Katrina conversation. “Those people”…as if they were vagrants I’d picked up off the street. Each time he called them that it was all I could do to retain my composure and not respond in an equally unkind fashion. The phone call was basically an eviction notice for my family. He reminded me that he hadn’t gone up on my rent... that I didn’t have a lease... that he was renovating a downstairs apartment and would get $200 more a month for it than what I am currently paying, and so on. Then he ended the call by saying “So, you need to take care of your business.”

I was floored. It apparently didn’t matter to him that my parent’s home was still studs, that each step they took toward rebuilding was met with a code, a requirement, a stipulation or three other things they needed to do first. It also didn’t matter to him that evicting my family (after a mere 8 weeks) meant that my parents would have to forfeit their tiny camper and sleep on an air mattress in a house that was still studs and slab and didn’t even have a fully functional bathroom.

I am thankful, that it does matter to God and He has met their needs, and given them creative ways to manage their unique living arrangements. I am also thankful that He has made my time, to an extent, their time so that I am able to help by taking the kids for a few hours or a few days on the weekend while they continue the rebuilding.

This week, all of the codes were met, inspections passed and the sheetrock began going up. I never thought I'd be so happy, and moved to tears, at the sight of guys hanging sheetrock! But, I guess it wasn't so much the sheetrock that touched me as the knowledge that the house wouldn't be nearly so cold at night, and my family would have a greater degree of privacy when the used they one functioning toilet.

I am thankful for the reminders and reality checks I receive when I visit my childhood home, and those I receive each morning.

Most days, I begin my drive to work in the dark. The route I take brings me from the land of normal to the land of destruction in the span of about 5 minutes. Usually, as I come to a rise in the highway which then comes down on the land of destruction, I can see the sun rising over the New Orleans skyline in the distance. I then drive through areas like what I described earlier…areas still untouched since the storm. I see waterlines, markings left by the National Guard indicating the dead that may or may not be inside, and mere smatterings of life in the form of random FEMA trailers or functioning gas stations.

I am thankful for this daily reminder that it is decidedly NOT business or life as usual. It won’t be for some time. I pray that those isolated from many of the long-term effects, or fortunate enough to have escaped much of Katrina’s wrath will be so blessed as to be reminded as well…that they would press the pause button for a moment and see and feel the reality of all that still remains to be done and all that has been lost (though not by them). I pray that they would then be moved with compassion, which is followed by hands willing to help. And that none of us will quickly forget the lessons we have learned, the blessings that wait on the other side of loss, and live to see the unfolding of God’s plan and purpose behind Hurricane Katrina.


  1. Yes, the bottom line there is thankfulness really isn't it. Thankfulness of where we are, and the mercy to realize that a lot of people do not have even a house over their heads and need a hand up. I am reminded of Ebenezer Scrooge in the Christmas Carol who did not care about all those around him when one of the ghosts states "Mankind was Your Business" It all really boils down to being Thankful in whatever our state is and then being merciful and helping out our world where ever we can. I am rambling here :) My two cents... Blessings -Moose

  2. I tend to like a good ramble...a fact, I think, of which any one of my posts can be used as proof.

  3. Thank you for your reminder that the God that pulls us back to our feet also stands beside us in the dirt to show us that He is always with us.

    Praying for the rebuilding of lives and, by the grace of God, discovery of new life in Him.