New Orleans

I am sure most of you have been reading the news and observing the atrocious nature with which the US government has been responding to the situation in New Orleans. Jessica and I talked last night and neither one of us have been able to find the right words to even post about this increasingly saddening situation. In light of this, one of my best friends has been living in New Orleans as a community worker for 4 years, and as the heart of feminist politics is the voices from the margins, I thought it would be good to hear a perspective that we may not hear on the news.
Cheryl wrote…
I left my apartment in New Orleans on Saturday, August 28 around 3:45pm with a duffle bag containing two pairs of pants, two t-shirts, and a pair of sneakers. Right now, this is all I own, and yet I know I am far luckier than the thousands of my neighbors who have been trying for days to escape from the wrath of Hurricane Katrina and our government’s lazy and offensive response.
For the past four years, I have been working in New Orleans, serving first as a public school teacher through Teach For America and later as a Program Director for the organization itself. Teaching eighth grade Language Arts at F.W. Gregory Junior High, now completely submerged in toxic waters, I worked with some of the most beautiful, intelligent, and financially poor citizens of New Orleans. As I sit, safe and sound because I had the means to first evacuate and then later fly to my mother’s house in New York, I can’t seem to stop crying, knowing that many of the kids and families I used to know are now separated, sick, hungry, shocked, and god-forbid, dead.
I scour every image that appears on CNN and search various websites, hungry to see faces I recognize, desperate to know the fate of my former students. Perhaps I’m naïve, hoping that they all evacuated or that all of the horrors that have transpired in the Superdome didn’t touch them. But realistically, I know this is probably not the case.
New Orleans in one of the poorest cities in America, entrenched in racism, which divides this city and determines the opportunities of its citizens. Of course a disaster like Hurricane Katrina hits all of us—poverty-stricken to elite—without any care for our socio-economic status. Neighborhoods in the suburbs are submerged under water just as those are in the Lower 9th Ward. But while the storm itself made no distinction, people and political decisions have, creating a system that prevented thousands of people from having the means to escape and capping their opportunities to survive the aftermath.
It’s the budget cuts made in Congress despite Louisiana’s appeal for aid to help rebuild the levee system and curb marsh land destruction that made New Orleans entirely vulnerable and unprotected to a disaster of this magnitude. It’s the urban planning that constructed the projects in the lowest parts of the city, as that was the only remaining land for public housing, which left those who could not afford to evacuate the first to be submerged by waters. It’s the ego and ignorance of President Bush who sent the majority of our troops to Iraq to contain his blundering foreign policy, leaving our nation abandoned and exposed in the wake of this tragedy. It’s the lack of care from a political party that promised compassionate conservatism while poor black people drown literally and figuratively in the cesspool of my former city. Those left behind in New Orleans are the same as those who President Bush once waxed effusive about “saving” through his NCLB education policies, and yet here they are starving and dying while he flies overhead.
Watching the news, I see the looting, the accounts of rape, the hunger and thirst of my neighbors and former students, and I can only think of the details of destruction that seem to happen in third world countries. I see how tragedy creates a trajectory of disaster, as people become desperate to survive. I see how even efforts to save lives bring more heartache as families get separated from one another, babied airlifted to hospitals away from their mothers, husbands and wives sent to different shelters across the Gulf Coast.
And so what does this all mean now? What happened to my former students? Will Jeremy be able to complete his senior year of high school and attend UCLA next year on his football scholarship? Did Kenneth’s family leave the lakefront area in time? Did Ashley’s people make it out of the Lower Ninth Ward before the industrial canal flooded her streets? Where is Tajuana, who I’ve tried to call, or Quiana? Shante? Shane? Don?
I’m left with an anxiety that puts me in tears and ruptures my soul. While I feel such love and gratitude for the millions of Americans who have donated money, supplies, and themselves to helping in these efforts, I am sickened knowing that it will not save the lives that have already been damaged and lost. Our callous governmental response and ill-prepared agencies once again determined the fate of my kids and their families. I feel such shame and indignation at the president’s betrayal of my community and pray for a peace that doesn’t seem to exist.

Hang in there Cheryl and all the families, workers, children and friends that have been affected by Hurrican Katrina.
Contributed by Cheryl Bratt. If anyone would like to email her, email me and I will forward.

Join the Conversation