Shame on America

Shame on America

Dr. Wally Greene works with UJA-NNJ volunteers to repair buildings damaged during Hurricane Katrina.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, my wife and I were vacationing in Maine. I can still recall my anguish, revulsion, and horror as day after day on the television we witnessed terrible devastation and suffering in New Orleans without any visible signs of rescue or major assistance. This distress has never been addressed. There is still devastation and suffering throughout the area almost two years later, and all levels of government have callously and cavalierly ignored the human tragedy taking place.

I recently returned from a volunteer stint in New Orleans with a group from the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. We cleared debris from houses that haven’t been touched since Katrina. We did yard work, mowed lawns, cut weeds, and — through the Beacon of Hope organization — tried to make presentable part of the Lakeview neighborhood that is attempting to stage a comeback. In another neighborhood, the Upper Ninth Ward, we worked in the hot Louisiana sun with Habitat For Humanity to frame a house. Another day found us at Just The Right Attitude food pantry, preparing meals and food parcels for those without funds or the working poor who are ineligible for food stamps. If Oprah would have Debra South Jones, the indefatigable founder and guiding force, on her show, I am sure support would be forthcoming to this worthy organization.

How can this be happening in ‘1st-century America? How can we just forget a major city? How can we allow U.S. citizens to live in trailers for so long? How do we live with the knowledge that homes have been washed away, others are uninhabitable, entire neighborhoods are ghost towns, schools, hospitals, businesses, stores, and offices remained closed — almost two years after the hurricane? How do we justify the snail’s pace of FEMA payments and insurance company challenges to legitimate claims? How do we explain that we rush aid all over the world to victims of floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, mudslides, and for hurricanes in (Republican) Florida, but New Orleans is allowed to fester like some Third World municipality? How dare we reject much needed financial aid from foreign countries? Why is New Orleans being rebuilt solely by volunteers, civic groups, and its own residents?

The devastation is all around. Large blocks of neighborhoods are without electricity, sanitation, gas, or water. National Guard forces patrol where police will not go. Houses that need to be demolished stand like battle-weary sentinels ready to collapse. We dedicated a playground that was built by Tulane University Medical School students — but the school is still shuttered. The vaunted trolleys do not run down Charles Street or in other areas because the electricity is still out. Waterlogged city buses stand idle in their garages, waiting for the insurance adjusters. Everyone has a story, each more heart-rending than the other. Our bus driver shared his narrative and added that the drivers should have had some psychological counseling to cope with what they had to deal with as they tried to ferry people to high ground during the storm — and had to leave others stranded. Toxic, fetid water in some neighborhoods stood 10- to ‘0-feet deep for three weeks. Corpses and remains were washed out of crypts and cemeteries. Block after block of houses were washed away, and all that remains are the slabs on which they once stood.

The downtown area and the French Quarter are fine. Tourists who come for Mardi Gras and the Jazz Festival will not be inconvenienced. All the fancy restaurants, bars, shops, the casino, and colorful eateries are open. You can eat your Cajun, Creole, and French delicacies. At the same time, however, families without transportation or the means to purchase basic food staples line up for food parcels at soup kitchens and food pantries from as far away as Mississippi. There is something very wrong with this picture.

Katrina is old news, and other crises have taken hold of our national consciousness and headlines. The war in Iraq, Mideast diplomacy, nuclear threats from rogue nations, and one scandal and political embarrassment after another have sapped the Bush administration’s capacity to function. These are certainly important, but so are the citizens of New Orleans. They deserve better. The hurricane season is about to start, and the minimally repaired levees and canal breaches will not withstand another Force 5 hurricane. We can send people to the moon and beyond, yet we cannot build hurricane-proof levees. The technology is not lacking. The will to make it happen is. Why? I simply cannot understand or accept the phony reasons put forth to explain the miasma of murky politics that passes for FEMA. It is indeed a four-letter word in New Orleans.

Fact: Hurricane victims still reside in more than 8′,000 trailers and mobile homes.

Fact: Only 11,000 out of 89,000 applicants have received any financial assistance.

Fact: More than ‘0,000 public works projects are mired in a paperwork Bermuda triangle.

The Gulf coast is drowning again — in red tape. Creativity must replace intransigence and petty bickering. Extraordinary situations require extraordinary measures.

I am back in my comfortable air-conditioned suburban home. I have a job. I can go to the store to buy food. It is too easy to forget the daily struggle for existence that is taking place in New Orleans. I do, however, have a modest proposal to deal with our government’s inertia, callous indifference, corruption, and just plain mean-spiritedness in their refusal to rebuild New Orleans. The president should invite the vice president, the senators from Louisiana, top FEMA officials, and the mayor of New Orleans to spend a week in a room without water, food, sanitary facilities, or air-conditioning, with the thermostat turned up to 105 degrees. I am confident that a solution and a plan of action would be developed and agreed upon before their deodorants gave out.

Dr. Wallace Greene is the director of Jewish Educational Services for the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. He runs many programs involving Israel.