Deborah’s Visit to New Orleans’ 9th Ward

I have not been to New Orleans in twenty years. The last time I was there it was melting hot, the sun blazing on Bourbon Street’s ornate Victorian buildings whose balconies sagged from the weight of decades of revelers. Restaurants offered sumptuous food – ragouts, roulades, collard green croquettes and desserts dripping with brown sugar, cream and sweet-smelling cinnamon. Yesterday I flew to the city to tour the 9th Ward and see a Freedom School at the invitation of Marian Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund. This area of New Orleans where the levees broke is still in a state of eerie emergency. From our seats on the bus, we entered into a forgotten parish – every house that was standing had boarded windows and doors, roofs and walls caved in, pipes sticking up like broken arms, cars in trees, houses toppled on cars, boats sitting on rooftops. Empty lots had cement stairs leading to nothing. One of our hosts, Charmaine Neville said, “What the wind didn’t take, the water did.”

When Hurricane Katrina struck I watched news reports desperately wanting to witness family members reunited, and I sobbed with a mother reunited with her five-year-old son, her face alive with gratitude and love. I joined this May 8th delegation of mothers to see for myself if those who were displaced, homeless, penniless and without jobs had found hope and wholeness. What I learned is they have been abandoned by our government. 138,000 citizens still reside in Houston; many have relocated to Mississippi, North Carolina, Alabama and points West. Every story from every mouth was, “We just want to come home.”

A teddy bear caught upside down on a cyclone fence, visibly plucked from the rushing waters – was it torn from a child’s arms? Did the child survive? Numbers painted on houses by the National Guard and other rescue teams marked the date the house was first inspected, the number of bodies or survivors found, pets picked up, and a date rescuers returned. It was chilling to see how close the levee wall was to the neighborhood and how it was not a fortress at all. Charmaine said there was no time to do anything except get on top of your house. The water rose faster than people could think.

We were given statistics to make our heads spin, but as my daughter Angelica said, “The numbers mean nothing until you see the people.” 350,000 cars abandoned beneath freeways, rusting and crushed or sprung open; couches piled on stoves and dressers, pieces of people’s lives piled into acres of rubbish. The houses rot in the hot sun waiting to be torn down or rebuilt. Across from Bayou Sauvage, the largest urban wildlife refuge in America, state officials have approved plans to dump 2.6 million tons of refuse without following environmental guidelines.

My father was born in Louisiana. The people struggling there are my relatives, as is every person in the human family. In the rubble of the 9th Ward, I was completely helpless. It was deadly silent; not one dog, cat or person walked by the destruction. Not one warbler or gull flew by. I saw two men inside a home near the outskirts, their black faces covered in stiff white masks – fumes of mildew and toxic electronics, personal products, cleaning solutions, fertilizers and bleach leeching into their lungs as they searched for bodies. 2000 children still have no schools, playgrounds or libraries. Charity Hospital has been operating in tents that the Army loaned from Iraq and Afghanistan, which reminds me – why are we spending $60 million per hour on destroying and rebuilding Iraq when we cannot rebuild one great American city?

This is a call to action for all Americans! Please write your state and national representatives to ensure Disaster Relief Medicaid coverage for Katrina’s evacuees!

Click here to write your representatives!

Children as well as adults were unable to get life-saving medicines because they had no proof of their eligibility. That proof had been washed away in the alligator-filled waters, and our country did not respond with compassion.

I also urge you to travel to New Orleans to see the state of emergency for yourself. I will return; I will support the Freedom Schools that are offering hope and a future to the children. At the beginning of each school day, the students and staff chant and celebrate each other in a session of Harambee! Harambee is a Kiswahili word that means “let’s pull together.”

And so we shall.