"When the Levees Broke" and Katrina one year later: A retrospective by Renarda Williams | Rock Candy

"When the Levees Broke" and Katrina one year later: A retrospective by Renarda Williams

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"When the Levee Broke" shows neglect of poor and black people

 Spike Lee's HBO documentary "When the Levee Broke," which ran in two parts early last week and in its entirety on Friday, reminded me of how felt watching the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on CNN. And here are my personal feelings about Katrina.
 
Hurricane Katrina affected me, as a native Louisianian, much the same way the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, affected my friend and Bronx native Adrienne Holloman. She saw the Twin Towers fall while watching the news in Atlanta, her adopted home.
 
The storm was nothing compared to its aftermath. I saw broken levees flooding the 9th Ward and other areas of the city. I saw hundreds of African-Americans ... left behind, stranded in their flooded neighborhoods, and treated like they were EXPENDABLE.
 
I felt helpless, especially when I saw dead bodies floating in the water and people on rooftops screaming at helicopters for help. The most deplorable images I saw were those of the hundreds of people at the New Orleans Convention Center -- hungry, thirsty, tired, sick, and dying.
 
The U.S. Coast Guard should be commended for picking up many African-Americans, and others, from rooftops and in the water. They were more effective than the National Guard. They [Coast Guard] worked everyday and night rescuing people. Former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial [in the documentary] singled-out the Coast Guard for a "good job" rescuing stranded people in the water.
 
Once help arrived to the black New Orleans evacuees, I wanted to leave Little Rock and head to Monroe, La., where I worked as a journalist and caseworker for a juvenile diversion program for 15 years. There, my best friend, Mayor Jamie Mayo, coordinated an unified command with the mayor of West Monroe; other government officials, the law enforcement and fire departments of Monroe and Ouachita Parish; and the Red Cross.
 
This unified command was organized Aug. 27 to provide help for victims of Katrina arriving in Monroe. Mayo, along with city council members and city workers, opened the Civic Center Complex arena to provide food, shelter, and services for evacuees. Businesses and citizens from the Monroe/West Monroe area also provided services during this joint effort.
 
Mayo did a magnificent job coordinating the help for New Orleans evacuees. According to his public relations director, Rod Washington, Mayo and his wife were at the Monroe Civic Center Arena and Complex every day, tending to the needs of evacuees.
 
Even though my wife and I donated money, clothes and school supplies to hurricane-relief efforts in Little Rock, I wanted to return home to Louisiana and volunteer. I decided to remain in Little Rock because if I had left, I probably would not have returned ... the pull would have been that strong. Louisiana is my home, not Arkansas. I would have asked my wife to pack up and move to Monroe. But I realized that God led me to Little Rock, not only to marry my queen Helaine, who is an Arkansan; not only to improve my financial status, but to fulfill His will, whatever it may be in Little Rock.
 
Katrina devastated and displaced more than 500,000 residents of New Orleans. Many of them relocated to 47 other states. Many victims faced post-traumatic stress disorder. While having lunch one day at a fast-food restaurant in North Little Rock, Helaine and I met Rose, a woman from New Orleans who worked there. Rose told us she had lost everything -- including her home and job -- after Katrina.
 
Rosa was happy to meet me, a fellow Louisianian. I commented to her that Katrina still has an effect on me....an anger I will have toward the U.S. government for the rest of my life. And only God can take that anger away from me. It will be a gradual process. "It has more of an affect on me because I experienced Katrina face-to-face," Rose said.
 
Although Rose was generally grateful to the people of Arkansas for helping evacuees get back on track with jobs and housing, she and many other black evacuees have been treated harshly by North Little Rock and Little Rock police, city and FEMA authorities. In addition to having been hurricane victims, they were victims of stereotypes that labeled them as criminals, lazy, and shiftless. Unfortunately there were indeed some "bad apples" among the evacuees. But every city, and every race, has its bad apples.
 
It's been tough for Rose. She went from a good job and home ownership to working in a fast-food restaurant and being placed in an "apartment" that, she found out too late, was in a housing project. But she's trying to stay upbeat ... and, when things get better,"I want to go back home," Rose said.
 
We both became teary-eyed when we reminisced about what we missed about Louisiana, especially good ol' GUMBO! No offense to you Arkansans, but Louisiana has the best gumbo in the world.
 
Besides the insensitivity, arrogance and naivete of President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and Vice President Dick Cheney and FEMA, the thing that angered me the most about the handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster was the way poor blacks were treated before and after the storm. There was no legitimate evacuation plan to get poor  blacks out of the city. They were abandoned and ignored, as if they were less than human.
 
Another thing that angers me is the fact that the vulnerability of New Orleans' levees had been ignored for years. In elementary, junior high school and high school, I was taught that the levees were not strong enough to endure a strong hurricane. Throughout the years, reports on this subject were submitted to the federal government and past presidents by New Orleans journalists, researchers from Louisiana State University and Tulane University.
 
The reports stated that if the levees around the city were not reconstructed to withstand a strong hurricane, they would break. These reports were overlooked. In my opinion [and I believe] that the levees were deliberately blown up. Black interviewees in documentary, who lived by near the levees, said they heard [bombs] exploding by the levees.
 
I also think the U.S. government allowed Katrina to demolish New Orleans; relocate poor black to cities like Houston, where there is already a large black population; and remake New Orleans to be predominately white.
 
I think the best analysis of Katrina was by Dr. Michael Eric Dyson [interviewed in the documentary], in his book "Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster" (Basic Civitas Books, New York, NY, 2006). Dyson, the author of the best-selling book "Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost its Mind?" (Basic Civitas Books), clearly states when Katrina ripped through New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, there were hundreds of thousands of people -- mostly poor and black -- left behind to suffer the devastation, disease and death. He further points out that the federal government responded slowly to appeals for help from Louisiana's governor Kathleen Blanco, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.
 
Most importantly, Dyson talks about the problem that existed before Katrina: the grinding poverty among blacks in that city ... poverty that had long been swept under the city's festive rug of tourism.
 
I feel the anger by some of the people Spike Leet interviewed in the documentary.
 
I feel the anger of Jazz trumpeter [and New Orleans native] Terence Blanchard when he said "somebody needs to go to jail" because the government knew the levees were not strong enough to hold the water. "It pissed me off [about the flooding] because it did not have to happen," Blanchard said.
 
I feel the anger of Soledad O'Brien of CNN when she jumped all over FEMA's director Michael Brown for saying he did not receive information about condition of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast during Katrina.
 
I feel the anger of Garland Robinette, a radio talk show host on WWL, 870, when he said the government only responded with aid for New Orleans after Mayor Nagin became outraged on his show about the lack of federal government response for helping New Orleans.
 
I feel the anger of Cheryl Livaudias of St. Bernard Parish when she said "President Bush can kiss my a***. FEMA can kiss my a***. and the Army Corps of Engineers can kiss my a***."
 
I feel the grief of Kimberly Polk of New Orleans who described how her 5-year-old daughter Serena was found dead floating in the water with her "backpack."

I dedicate this column to Rose, and my fellow black Louisianians from New Orleans -- especially those who are voiceless and often ignored. Brothers and sisters, continue to hold on. God has not forgotten you....remember, we are Africans, a race of people who will never die! -- Renarda Williams

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