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I went to New Orleans for the last two weeks. I came back. I'd like to write an essay about what I saw and experienced, but I know that I will not be able to write in a way that explains anything. I'd like to abstain because of that, at least for the time being, but I know it's too important not to share. The media is not doing the catastrophic state of the majority of the city justice.

I will say this: that I am furious about the apathy this country is showing New Orleans, and has shown any devastated area at home or abroad in its history. Conditions are worse than I could have imagined, the disparity between the effects on rich and poor neighborhoods is beyond belief, and the outrage of the public over lack of action has died down. This should not be allowed to happen.

Neighborhoods remain untouched, four months later. My group and I gutted houses that have barely been entered since September. To gut a house, you essentially go inside and remove everything that has been damaged by water and become moldy. In most cases that we saw, this means everything in the house. "Everything" entails furniture, curtains, built-in cupboards, personal possessions, carpeting, floorboards, walls, all of these things that people expected to come home to left exactly as they were. The first house we worked in was in the Lower Ninth Ward, and its contents were covered in a layer of black muck eight inches thick. We would pull out bucketfuls of unidentifiable items, and then realize, oh, these were clothes. These were books. These belonged to a family. This was there home. Nothing can be saved.

I'll repeat myself: This should not be allowed to happen.

In elementary school you read about Martin Luther King, Jr., and if you're like me you'd like to deceive yourself into thinking that racism was overturned years ago, it doesn't happen now. That is a lie. It does. The situations we discovered are polluted with racism and classism, and they are strongly linked. Nearly every house I gutted belonged to a member of a poor black community. We worked for days in the Upper Ninth on houses belonging to a group of family members, pulling out everything and putting it in the street, where it sat. Garbage pick-up was suspended. One day, we switched to a middle-class white neighborhood. Here, after we'd been working for three hours and a vast array of mold-covered thing had accumulated on the lawn, a garbage truck pulled up and took it all away. They returned at the end of the day to finished the job. What does that say?

Barring that incident, we spent our time working in poor neighborhoods that looked like war zones. Meanwhile, we had housing with a relief organization that sprung out of a church in the Garden District. The area we were living in looked like any rich neighborhood in any city in America. Houses were in pristine condition, shops were open, people were present. The only indication that something was wrong were the "Katrina Hours" of most businesses, everything still closing early.

A couple days when we were in the upper ninth, a woman in the upper ranks of the organization we were working through came by to give tours of the worksites to their sponsors (rich old people) and take pictures of our work. The first day it was disconcerting; the second, I got up the nerve to say to her enthusiastically, "So, are you going to help?" She looked at me as if to say, honey, do you know who I am? and replied, "I'm a photographer." "So what? I'm a college student," I responded, but she ignored me.

Please, do not ignore the people of New Orleans. Get your hands dirty. Go down and hook up with a relief organization. Donate anything. Write your congresspersons, senators, friends, enemies. If all you've done since the hurricanes were covered on CNN was think, "Oh, that's a pity," then you've at least gotten a start with empathy, but it is not enough. There are areas of the city that I truly believe are beyond repair and should be leveled, but if people wish to return to their homes, as many do, they should be given the opportunity to do so, and should be given government aid as well. Everyone in this country should be as furious as I am about the way things have been handled, and should be acting accordingly to set up ways to remedy that. Please, do something, anything. You would want it done for you.


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November 2009

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