Katrina Plus Four Months, Part 4 - Essay In Black (and White):
There's a good chance there haven't been this many white people in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans since the last time the NOPD busted up a crack house. On this day, four months after the levee broke during Hurricane Katrina and sent a train roar of water heaving through the streets, the Ninth is crawling with white people in this neighborhood that fits Wolf Blitzer's definition of "so poor and so black." The white people crawl along in luxury cars to gawk at the destroyed community, nestled between very white Chalmette and, just on the other side of the Industrial Canal, the Bywater, a mixed race community in New Orleans that gives way to the more gentrified Faubourg that gives way to the French Quarter.
Some white people get out of their cars to walk the shattered, muddy streets. Some take photos, most personal tokens, but some of them obviously for professional purposes. One young white man posed an older black man on a small stool, asking him to put his hands on his knees and lean forward. The young white man wanted to take a picture of the older black man in front of the black man's collapsed house, dotted with his dirt-caked possessions. The Rude Pundit hated that young white man. The Rude Pundit wanted to kick his ass when he made the older black man re-pose. And then the Rude Brother reminded the Rude Pundit that they themselves were walking around, taking pictures, and, really, and, c'mon, were they that many steps removed from the photographer. The Rude Brother, a better angel, surely, if there is such a thing, said, "Isn't it better that people are coming to see this?" This, meaning, of course, everything around him.
To enter the streets near the levee in the Lower Ninth Ward is to witness the magnitude of the force of the floods. And it is to understand why the black people of the neighborhood believe they were abandoned. To put this in context: the Rude Pundit visited the site of the fallen Twin Towers four months after 9/11. That was comprehensible horror - it was horror, to be sure, but it was concentrated, and we could grapple with that and understand it. We could see it all in a single wide-angle picture. Not the Lower Ninth Ward. Because one stationary camera would diminish the extent of the vast wasteland the neighborhood has become, and the fact that virtually nothing has been done in the months since Katrina.
Herbert Gettridge was sitting on the porch of his stucco home, one of the few that remained standing without massive damage. Gettridge sat there as two other men were pulling out all of his belongings and tossing them into a pile. "I've been in this house for fifty years," he said, "raised nine children here. People know the Gettridges in the Lower Ninth." Yeah, he wants everyone to know, the Lower Ninth Ward was poor and crime-ridden, but it was also a community of families and now the crime and families are gone, only leaving the poverty. He had re-built the house once before, after Hurricane Betsy in 1965: "I pulled out the old sheetrock by myself and put in all the new. I'll do it again." Of course, Gettridge is 82 years old now. "I just came back here from Madison, Wisconsin. FEMA sent us to seven different places, all over." He finally ended up with a daughter in Madison, with his wife, "been with the same woman since I was sixteen." His wife's sick, he said. "She wasn't doing too well before the storm and now she's feelin' worse." She remains in Madison.
The Gettridges had evacuated early, but so many others stayed behind or just couldn't leave. The attic of the house next door had a neat square hole cut in it. Gettridge's neighbor had stayed behind. "I told him he was a fool. Was in that attic for four or five days before the helicopter came and cut him out, half dead, no food or water." Another man across the street "lost his mind" because he stayed during the flood.
Gettridge's house was surrounded by the rubble and ruin of other houses. Most of the homes were knocked off their foundations by the rush and churn of the water from the Industrial Canal. Many were simply crushed - nothing but wood, insulation, roofing. A few were roofs on the ground with no house there. Cars were trapped underneath homes. Houses were split open, like walnuts, cracked to reveal what was within, the belongings spilling out. And it has essentially looked this way since the flood came. "Four months, and they haven't even moved the damn barge," Gettridge said.
Oh, yeah, the barge. There's a barge in the middle of the street next to the levee. Some believe the giant barge actually came unmoored in the storm and broke the levee. Some Lower Ninth members say that they had complained about the barge before Katrina hit, that it was knocking against the levee earlier, and because it was Lower Ninth citizens, with no power at all, no one cared. But the barge is there, a huge rusting hulk. The barge, when it came through the levee, smeared the houses right near it, like a gargantuan knife smoothing butter on a slice of toast. The water and barge shoved other houses together into a jammed up pile. One of Gettridge's sons has a house in that pile. If the levee had held, yes, the neighborhood would still have been flooded, but it would have been more like Chalmette or Slidell, with houses turned into shells. Terrible enough, but not this.
Walking near the barge, a large black man, about 30 years old, stepped out of a pick-up truck and just started talking to the Rude Pundit and his brother. "I've been in Oakland for the last three months. I just came back here today with my family. First time since I left on September 7." He hadn't been able to get out before the storm and he and his family rode it out before being taken to the I-10 overpass by someone with a small boat. "We were lucky because we had food and water up there. But it was horrible, man, horrible." He talked about shitting and pissing in front of other people, about old people dying around him. "I got two kids with me, six and ten, and they wanna know what's gonna happen. I wanna cry, but I can't cry, 'cause if they see their father cry, then they're gonna know everything ain't gonna be alright." He shook his head at the barge and walked away.
Back at Herbert Gettridge's house, the Rude Pundit wished him luck, took his picture, and, overcome with white liberal guilt, handed him twenty bucks. "God bless you," Gettridge said. "If I was still drinking, this would buy me two cases of beer." Gettridge said he'd given up drinking three or four years ago. If he was still drinking, he'd have had an awfully long way to go to get a brew.
Posted by Rude One at 10:53 AM