Tuesday, March 27, 2007

I thought I knew poverty...

I didn’t. I was a Catholic Worker for a year in Olympia, WA. It’s a white, middle-class state capital and college town, with a vocal, active underclass who are still not as poor as they think they are. I thought I knew racism. I worked in non-profits; I was given all the proper diversity trainings, by white, middle-class Olympians. They taught what they knew, and they meant well. I begrudge them nothing. But no amount of repeating, “Power + prejudice = oppression,” equals the experience of three days in Louisiana.

The people in New Orleans are caught, quite literally, between Mother Nature and Big Oil. They have Lake Pontchartrain on one side, connected tenuously to the Gulf of Mexico. The river’s on the other. And down from the river, fed by its delta, are the wetlands, disappearing at a rate of an acre every 33 minutes. That disappearance is accounted for both by efforts to control the river, and oil companies drilling the bayou. Levees prevent the river from changing its course. They help to protect the city from normal, cyclical flooding—they also funnel the silt the river carries directly into open, deep water. If the river were allowed to run, silt would be distributed among the wetlands, keeping them intact, slowly increasing their area. As the wetlands are drilled, they sink, leaving the coast—and the city of New Orleans—ever more exposed.

When a hurricane hits, every three miles of wetlands reduce the category of that storm by one. Katrina had just downgraded to a Category 3 hurricane when it made landfall. It took 43 days to pump New Orleans dry. Half the population of the city has not returned from the evacuation. Without wetlands protection, and with the increase in hurricanes (due partly to global warming), more Category 4 and 5 storms will hit here. Recovery? What’s that?

I was told by one of the women’s shelter coordinators, something about the racism issue that just makes me seethe. The 9th Ward is/was primarily African-American. There is evidence to suggest that some of these levees were blown on purpose, during Katrina. Also, a casino company wanted to raze the houses and build a casino here, protected by a 14-foot levee. The people sued to keep their houses, and won. Essentially to punish them, the destroyed 10-foot levee is being rebuilt. “Sure, you can have your houses. But we’ll leave you with less protection than you need.”

I’m going to have to research that, but it’s easy to believe.

I called a friend in Berkeley last night, from the emergency room at Tulane University Hospital. (We had to take Michael there for a gash in his leg. He’ll be okay.) She’s a tax lawyer. She lives comfortably. But she gets it, and I knew she would. The first thing she asked me was what they could do for me. (Whether she meant she and her partner or the St. Aidan’s community, or both, is beside the point.) “I don’t know,” I shrugged. “Pray a lot.” We talked about violence, safety, building in floodplains, and how when I get back, I’m not going to know which of these worlds is Earth and which is Mars. One is so wealthy; the other so poor. I was a self-confessed “poor hippie” in Olympia. I didn’t know what I was talking about. I have choices, and resources, that the poor people of New Orleans couldn’t dream of.

She closed the conversation with, “We love you.” I know they do. And that little bit of humanity, from my other world, meant so much.

We were at the ER from 7 p.m. until about 12:30 a.m. Everyone in there was African-American, but us. Some had obvious emergent injuries. One man left paintbrush-sized swipes of blood on three chairs, from a stab wound in his back. Others appeared to simply need routine health care. One man was vomiting; a family held their coughing infant. A woman cussed out one of the techs; she called security immediately. I finally broke down while they were treating Michael. I haven’t slept well since I got here; I don’t feel safe in the building we’re staying in, and that plus the effects of everything I’m seeing caught up with me.

The night after we got here, we went to get beignets in the Quarter. The next afternoon, we went driving around the 9th Ward, and I took 60 pictures of the neighborhood. (I’m struggling to upload them here; I’ll display them as soon as I can.) I won’t describe them now; I’ll wait until I can show them in context. Yesterday, we spent five hours in the emergency room, and a man came in with a stab wound in his back. What kind of city is this? I don’t know how to make sense of what I’m experiencing. And I know that I can go home. For these people, this is their home. This is their life.

I woke at 3:45 this morning, and broke down sobbing again. My friends took care of me. Judy sat with me, talked to me, prayed with me. Vivian rubbed my shoulder. Michael moved his cot to between me and the door, and held my hand while I lay down, until I was calm. I got up to go to the bathroom, and ended up talking to Roderick, an African-American long-term volunteer from Georgia, who had given us our midnight tour of the building when we first got here on Friday. We talked about poverty and racism. I didn’t know what to do with my outrage, but sharing it helped, and we laughed a little. Then I went back to bed, and slept some. I want to get up and go work—but I’m still so tired. I haven't slept well since I got here.

I need to call my priest; I need to talk about what’s happening here, with someone who is not here anymore, but who knows it well. He’s a native of the area; he left three months after Katrina. I came here thinking I was supposed to share the presence of God. The women at the shelter have more faith than I do, here. They have nothing, materially, but their spirits are strong. All I have the strength to do—all I think I ever could effectively do—is hear their stories, and share them at home.

I said something on the phone to my friend, that she said I needed to write down. I cannot imagine myself, any group I belong to, or anyone I love, being this completely forgotten. (As uneasy as I feel about some aspects of our host organization, they are doing more than FEMA.) I cannot, and will not, ever forget this.


Anonymous said...

God bless you. You are doing all you can, and good will come for it.

I was living in NOLA before and after The Storm, but had to live. As much as I love the City and as much as it physically hurt me to have to move, it came down to a question of either moving or losing what was left of my sanity.

It hurts to be a forgotten people, and people like you are making sure New Orleans is NOT forgotten. THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart.

Eileen said...


That's all I got right now.

It definitely sounds like a very powerful experience you are having - one of those experiences where you will likely not see the world in quite the same way ever again.

And that's as it should be. Discomfort creates movement - more people need to feel "discomfort" about what has happened in New Orleans.

May the strength of the Lord find you, and embrace you as you see this community that struggles with being forgotten. Blessings.

Bill said...

Kirsten, Eileen pointed to your blog, so here I am. Among other things I volunteer with the Red Cross. When I tell you that we had people coming back with the same issues you had, please believe me.

When we train people for disaster work, we require them to take specific courses. Most deal with the mission of the Red Cross in these situations, but others deal with the health, both physical and mental of the disaster volunteers. We require our volunteers to speak with our Mental Health professionals at various times while they are down there and of course when they come home. This is to evaluate their mental states and to help them deal with any issues that we already know they will face. It’s not easy.

It was definitely not fair to assume that because you were a seminarian that you would automatically be able to deal with this stuff. That just isn’t so. We have volunteers who have gone down to the Gulf states numerous times and they still need to talk to the mental health professionals when they return.

I just had a discussion about this, this morning. One of our volunteers was telling me how after helping out last year at the Delaware river floods, she couldn’t sleep for several nights after. I said, “You mean to didn’t see your mental health contact after you finished”, and she said that she didn’t know that she was supposed to that. Well, sometimes we slip up. That volunteer should have been told the procedure and followed it. That’s how we keep our volunteers healthy.

If you are still suffering, please seek help. This has already gone on too long. You should be getting professional crisis counseling.

Mimi said...

I am in awe of you, my friend. Hugs and love.

Ann said...

Prayers surrounding you. Hope you are getting support for your health - mind, body, spirit.

Kirstin said...

Anonymous: I am honored, more than you know. Thank you so much. Your words are healing. God bless you, and we will pray with you. I hope that you have found a good place for yourself to be.

Eileen: Blessings and ((((hugs)))) right back. Thank you for remembering me, and all of us.

Bill: Thank you for your thoughts; I'm very mindful of the self-care that needs to happen. I'm doing my best to do it here, and will continue when I get home. No one made any "unfair" assumptions about me, except perhaps myself--but no amount of "preparation" could have prepared me.

Mimi: Thank you. Hugs and love right back, and it was wonderful talking with you yesterday.

Ann: Thank you for your prayers. I am getting support, and will get more of what I need when I get home.

Thank you, all of you, for your thoughts, love, and prayers for me and for the people of this city. I can feel your prayers embracing me. Thank you.

Kate Murphy said...

Kirsten - It was good to talk to you. Again, a handful of sems in what feels like a war zone for just a week doesn't give you much opportunity to be change agents there. Some yes, but limited. Where you all can really change the world is with the vision of the Forgotten that you bring back and forever hold in your views of the world, that forever is part (not all) of what shapes your ministries. Thank you for the words about the faith of the women in the shelter you are serving, like the faith of women (and men) in DarFur. By comparison, my willingness to wait upon the coming of "the commonwealth of peace and justice" appears to be the patience of a nano-second. And thank you for just praying the questions this all raises for you.

See you soon in the Peoples Republic of Bezerkely.

Mimi said...

It was amazing to talk to you my friend! Hugs and love and prayers.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Kristin, I am a native New Orleanian, but I moved away many years ago. Thank you for your work there. It's a heartbreaking story. You are in my prayers.

Kirstin said...

Kate: Thank you. Much, much love.


Grandmere Mimi: Thank you for your prayers; they mean more than you know.