Volunteer or visit but don't look away
Two years after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, turning hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens into refugees, cutting the city's population in half, flooding 80 percent of the city and annihilating whole networks of infrastructure, New Orleans has yet to recover from the chaos wrought by the hurricane.
A combination of continuing local, state and federal government ineptitude, the absence of media scrutiny and the repelling effect that New Orleans's new reputation has on ordinary outsiders has kicked away the city's already shaky crutch.
While the government remains hamstrung in its efforts to rebuild New Orleans, the last thing ordinary outsiders should do is throw up their hands in defeat or ignore the problems that the people of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast continue to face. Even in the absence of government, ordinary citizens can still make a difference by simply visiting and spending money in the areas of New Orleans that were only marginally affected by the storm, doing a great deal to help boost the city's economy and spirit. There are numerous non-profit and non-governmental organizations that accept and need volunteers.
Before Katrina, New Orleans had always been a city of ironies. The city was a famous cultural capital, the birthplace of jazz in the South and an amalgamation and cross-section of cultures that shaped the country. The city was also a popular destination for college spring-breakers and known for its ever-popular Mardi Gras celebrations. At the same time, New Orleans was the murder capital of the country for many years and much of the city was impoverished. Louisiana politics was notoriously corrupt and the public school system was in shambles.
In the aftermath of Katrina, the media spotlighted the city's problems, magnified tenfold by the Hurricane's destruction. The media in this country and around the world pushed the governments of New Orleans and Louisiana to take effective action immediately but their efforts were botched in bureaucratic red tape and billions of dollars in aid money was squandered.
The media stirringly documented the disaster for about a year after the hurricane hit. But now, two years after the catastrophe, the most vulnerable areas of New Orleans devastated by the hurricane remain largely in ruins; its reconstruction still deadlocked in the state capital. Louisiana's "Road Home" program has spent its $8 billion aimed at rebuilding homes, and may have created as much as $4 billion worth of debt. In the meantime, 160,000 of the people who fled the storm have not returned and 29 percent of the current resident population may leave according to a University of New Orleans poll.
Even today, blundering can be traced to the highest echelons of government. Because the Bush Administration refused to waive a requirement that local governments be able to foot funds that match the amount of aid in proposed federal recovery projects, less than half of all reconstruction funds have been spent. Governments are either under-spending extraordinarily, in the case of the federal government, or over-spending unwisely, in the case of Louisiana's "Road Home" program.
In the meantime, New Orleans is deteriorating. Outside the French Quarter and in neighborhoods close to the Mississippi River, much of the city is recovering slowly, if at all. Businesses cannot start because of housing shortages and high rents. The city's homeless population has doubled since the storm and squatters are occupying approximately 80,000 vacant lots. National Guard and state troops continue to supplement an undermanned local police force while the crime rate continues to rise.
Despite its abysmal failure to reverse Katrina's damage, do not write off the government. Send letters to Congress and ask them to do what they can to make sure aid gets to the people who need it in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast and create recovery programs that work. Visiting New Orleans and volunteering can also be enormously beneficial and can send a powerful message of solidarity to those still suffering. There are hundreds of diverse non-profits in the city, from daycare and children's welfare services to housing development corporations that accept volunteers from all over the country.
In the tradition of the Alamo, "Remember New Orleans" should become the country's slogan until New Orleans achieves more than normalcy and becomes more livable than it was before Katrina. Only such an outcome could atone for the disgraceful failures of the past two years.
Gus Woods. William "Gus" Woods is a junior who enjoys, far more than anything else, tiddlywinks tournaments and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" re-runs. He is a great fan of any and all music and enjoys playing the piano in his spare time. He belongs, literally belongs, … More »